On Monday, the Fighting Illini’s coveted-2017-recruit turned regressing-freshman, Mark Smith, announced he would be leaving the program. The school has not put any restrictions on his release, but absent an unexpected waiver from the NCAA, he will have to sit out the 2018-19 season.
While disappointing, the news should not be a shocker to Illini faithful as last year’s Mr. Basketball in Illinois had seen a diminishing role starting in conference play back in December, with production only briefly resurfacing prior to the resumption of B1G play in January. Smith had not cracked double-digits in scoring since this Illini season’s lone moment of glory versus Mizzou.
In hindsight, it’s perhaps a blessing that Smith didn’t heat up even briefly in conference play, since his departure is only disrupting momentum fans wish Brad Underwood had started. Smith was considered a significant get for the first year coach. They lost Jeremiah Tilmon to Mizzou while ridding themselves of John Groce’s next-next-next-4-out monotony, but had at least snagged Smith and Trent Frazier, with even more highly regarded Ayo Dosunmu waiting in the wings.
As has been the rule rather than the exception for the last 10-plus years of Illini revenue sports, the plan did not go as hoped.
What’s past is past, and if Brad Underwood is to right the ship in Champaign, as many non-delusional people think he more likely-than-not will, Smith cannot come to be known as “the one that got away” in years three, four and beyond of Underwood’s tenure.
The lesson is easy to identify – don’t assume any one specific recruit will pan out, instead load up on every scrap of talent the trail will yield. Putting this lesson into practice is the hard part, only made more difficult by the fact that blue chips stay with a program for shorter, often 1-year, periods, than the last time the Illini were contending in the B1G.
Illinois’s glory years are too distant for direct memory with recruits, but the facilities, competition, and in-state talent make B1G contention a reasonable long-term benchmark.
While not a lot is leaving the Illini (beyond Smith, just Mark Alstork) so far, the next few months could have major ramifications on the trajectory of the Underwood-rebuild.
Retention of Leron Black is priority number one. He made significant development as a scorer, and was the only bright spot beside Trent Frazier on a team that went 4-14 in conference. If Black senses another season theme of “development”, testing the grad transfer market could be the prudent play for the fifth-year senior still seeking an NCAA Tournament appearance.
Whether or not Black goes, the transfer market does both giveth and taketh away, and the former is now more important than expected. Getting a skilled big to play the 4 or 5 is the only way Underwood can hope to spin next year as one with legitimate B1G credibility and tourney expectations. Let Smith be the exception, Trent and Ayo the rule.