CHAMPAIGN — Since it was just last April, it’s not hard to recall the night at the Edwardsville High School gym when Mark Smith and his parents sat before a crowd of a few hundred onlookers and made Illini basketball fans leap from their seats with fist-pumping joy.
When Smith revealed a white Illini golf shirt and slipped on a blue Illini cap, he was choosing Illinois over some of the nation’s blueblood basketball programs.
Michigan State and Duke, he said, finished in a tie for second. Kentucky was close.
It was heady stuff and a major victory for new Illini coach Brad Underwood, who had to scramble to keep Illinois in the recruiting lead.
It seemed like a match made in heaven. A physically strong guard with a dangerous 3-point shot would thrive in Underwood’s pressing defensive system. As Illinois’ first Mr. Basketball recruit since Jereme Richmond in 2010, Mark Smith would be this generation’s Dee Brown.
Or so it seemed.
On Monday, that dreamy start came to an end. Smith met with Underwood and AD Josh Whitman and will be given his release in order to transfer.
Smith said he simply didn’t feel like he fit into Underwood’s system.
It’s true that Smith struggled mightily to find a comfort level defending in Underwood’s pressing, havoc-wreaking system that forced more turnovers than any team in the Big Ten. Underwood became frustrated when Smith would pick up two early fouls, forcing him to the bench.
That wasn’t Smith’s only struggle. He looked uncomfortable dribbling in traffic and shot just 23.2 percent from 3-point range. When other guards started performing at a higher level, including freshmen Trent Frazier and Da’Monte Williams, as well as sophomore Te’Jon Lucas, Smith’s playing time decreased.
How much this hurts the Illini program remains to be seen. No one can say what Smith’s basketball ceiling might be, only that he won’t realize it at Illinois.
For now, it’s a bad look from a public relations standpoint because there was so much hype that accompanied Smith to campus. While some of us were encouraging people to be patient for Smith’s sophomore season, turns out Smith himself didn’t have that patience.
To his credit, Smith sounded like he was going to make the best out of this situation.
“I learned a lot this year, being in a spot where things weren’t going how I wanted them to,” he said. “It was a good experience for me.”
If the rumors are right, Smith won’t be the only player transferring.
Michael Finke’s future has been whispered about all season, at least since his brother, Tim Finke, committed to Grand Canyon University in Phoenix. Conjecture is that Michael Finke might join his brother as a fifth-year grad transfer, allowing them to play together next season. The family could easily relocate to Arizona.
With Underwood continuing to recruit guards, and with 5-star Ayo Dosunmu arriving this summer, maybe other current guards are nervous about playing time.
Underwood also just got a commitment from New York wing player Alan Griffin. He’s recruiting shooters and an undersized guard like Lucas, who doesn’t really have a reliable jump shot, might feel he’s a mismatch in this system, too.
This is a period of addition and subtraction and judgments made about next year’s team should be suspended until we see a roster that looks somewhat final.
Assistant coach Chin Coleman was just in Florida to watch a 6-foot-11 player from Senegal named Samba Kane. Assistant Orlando Antigua evaluated him earlier and a scholarship offer has been extended.
They’re waiting to hear on several other recruits, and any transfers must be weighed against any new arrivals.
It’s not dissimilar from what Lovie Smith went through on the football front — players from the past coaching regime moving on, recruits hand-picked by the new staff arriving.
That’s what’s bad about the Mark Smith situation. This was a kid Underwood went hard after himself. This was supposed to be the right fit. For both the player and the school, it’s disappointing it didn’t turn out that way.