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Mark Smith

In this December 2014 file photo, Edwardsville High School guard Mark Smith (13) looks to pass around the tough defense of Normal Community High School forward Alex Peacock (23) during second half action during the State Farm Holiday Classic at the Illinois Wesleyan University Shirk Center.

CHAMPAIGN – With four verbal commitments in hand, it’s going to take a special talent for Illini coach John Groce to turn loose of a fifth scholarship for the 2017 recruiting class.

Another big man is on his high wish list and there’s always room for an explosive wing who is a breathtaking above-the-rim athlete. Illinois doesn’t have enough high flyers.

But most of those prospects have been identified and battled over long ago. They now wait for Kansas, Kentucky and Duke to arm wrestle for their services.

The exception would be a late-developing, fast-rising senior who was not on the recruiting radar this summer but who has turned heads in the first month-and-a-half of this high school season.

Mark Smith of Edwardsville is that kind of a player.

Down in Belleville, Dave Wilhelm has been chronicling the high school sports scene for the Belleville News-Democrat since 1995. Part of his job is to supervise the selection of his newspaper’s high school basketball Player of the Year award, which will be handed out after the season is over.

Dave doesn’t pick the award on his own. He turns the vote over to local coaches and encourages their participation.

But after 20 years, Dave is pretty good at knowing when his area has an exceptionally strong group of candidates and knowing before the first game is played who is likely to be among the finalists.

“This is a really good year for us,” Wilhelm said, noting that East St. Louis High School has both Jeremiah Tilmon (committed to Illinois) and 6-6 sophomore Terrence Hargrove, that Belleville Althoff has highly regarded Jordan Goodwin (committed to St. Louis University) and Belleville East has Illini commit Javon Pickett.

So it would take something special for someone to break through that group.

So far, Wilhelm said, Mark Smith may have worked his way to the top of the pack.

Smith was recently named MVP of the Collinsville-Prairie Farms Holiday Classic, having put on a 35-point show the championship game victory over Althoff while Illini coaches John Groce and Jamall Walker were in attendance.

Smith made 13 of 19 shots and added eight assists and five rebounds.

The 6-foot-4 senior guard was once viewed as a baseball player and when he committed to the University of Missouri as a pitcher, and it may have discouraged some potential basketball suitors.

But Smith backed away from his baseball commitment in July and those close to him say he got serious about throwing his energies into basketball. The results, Wilhelm said, are shocking.

“What he’s doing is off the charts,” Wilhelm said. “He’s a team player, a smart guy, very humble. He’s had unreal growth since last year. His game has gotten so much better. He can take it to the rim, pass it and shoot the 3. His coaches say he loves working on his game.

“He dunked over a 6-5 kid the other night in the championship game and it was the best dunk I’ve seen in years. He has a tremendous frame and I have no question he can play at Illinois, maybe now.”

Until recently, Smith’s basketball scholarship offers were from Drake, Northern Illinois, SIU-Edwardsville, Indiana State and DePaul. But in the last couple weeks, Kansas State and Illinois have jumped in with offers. Smith was Illinois’ guest Sunday at their game against Ohio State.

“Word’s out,” Wilhelm said. “Schools are calling now wanting to get tape. I’d say in a year where we have Tilmon, Goodwin and Pickett, Smith is probably our Player of the Year right now.”

Smith comes from a basketball background. His parents were basketball players and his father is a coach.

Anthony Smith played at SIU-Edwardsville and is currently the coach at Metro East Lutheran. He formerly coached at Madison.

Smith’s mother, Yvonne (Boeckman) Smith was a basketball standout at Breese Mater Dei and SIU-Edwardsville.

In the recruiting world, where all types of questionable influences lurk, Smith has the best kind of basketball people in his corner – his parents.

Meanwhile, Illinois is no doubt keeping a close eye on Hargrove, the 6-6 wing. Although just a sophomore at East St. Louis, he’ll draw heavy recruiting interest and the early report on him is encouraging: He’s an honors student with a strong family who may qualify for Big Ten academic scholarship aid.

Hargrove is for the future. Mark Smith could help next season.

Smith was not one of the prospects high on the Illini recruiting board a few months ago. He is now. That speaks to how quickly he has climbed the ladder in a talent-rich area where it’s hard to stand out.

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