CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — It didn’t take long for Brad Underwood to set the foundation at Illinois.
Thirty-nine days to be exact.
The new Illini coach made his first splash when Illinois Mr. Basketball Mark Smith announced his commitment Wednesday night.
Underwood’s staff fought off recruitments from Kentucky, Duke and Michigan State to keep the Edwardsville native in his home state, but also found a key piece to lead the program Underwood hopes to create into a Big Ten and national contender.
“In every way, character wins,” Underwood said. “The culture, he’s got tremendous leadership. … That’s a young man who’s going to do well. We want to build our program around young men who win on the court as much as they win off the court.”
Smith’s recruitment wasn’t a typical process. The four-star shooting guard hadn’t fielded many offers until the start of his season, at least basketball offers. Smith spent most of his time on the baseball diamond, but with an explosive start to his senior season, basketball coaches started to take notice.
Former Illini coach John Groce offered Smith his first Big Ten basketball scholarship, which led to a domino effect of elite programs offering him, including Indiana and Kansas, but it was that first offer that made the difference for Smith. Underwood made sure to reach out to Smith once he was hired at Illinois on March 18 and Jamall Walker, who was retained from Groce’s staff and has been the lead man in Smith’s recruitment, made sure Smith knew he was a priority.
But it was Underwood’s vision for Illinois that made the difference for Smith. The shooting guard wasn’t afraid of the challenge Underwood presented in front of him: to bring back Illinois basketball to excellence.
“I want to make my state proud,” Smith said Wednesday. “I want to join the likes of Dee Brown, Brian Cook, Deon Thomas, Frank Williams, and other Mr. Basketballs that have chosen to stay in state.
Underwood’s tenure at Illinois started with five-star Jeremiah Tilmon and Javon Pickett both asking for their letters of release, dropping Illinois from its top-15 positioning in team rankings for the 2017 recruiting class, but Smith’s commitment signals what Illini fans can expect from Underwood and his staff. Orlando Antigua was added as an assistant coach following two and a half seasons as South Florida’s head coach and Ron Coleman joined the staff after spending two seasons as an assistant at UIC, creating a dynamic staff that knows how to recruit in the Chicago area, downstate Illinois and the rest of the nation.
The work doesn’t stop for Underwood and his staff though. With six graduating seniors, Illinois still has scholarships to offer to remaining recruits and fifth-year seniors — a big man is a priority.
But Underwood will continue to present his vision for what Illinois basketball will be. Smith is the first Mr. Basketball from Illinois to choose the Illini since Jereme Richmond did in 2010, and Underwood doesn’t plan on having another seven-year gap.
“To get Mr. Basketball, in this state, we have to be the option, not an option,” Underwood said. “We’re the University of Illinois.”
Copyright 2017 The Associated Press.