Late Saturday night, Illinois transfer Mark Smith committed to Missouri, providing the Tigers with a physical combo guard and former top-60 recruit they can stash away for a season.
Smith, who announced his intention to transfer in early March, reached his decision after a relatively quiet recruiting process that culminated with an official visit over the weekend. Under NCAA transfer rules, Smith will sit out next season and have three seasons of eligibility remaining.
Adding Smith, who averaged 5.8 points and 1.4 rebounds per game as a freshman, brings clarity to a month of conjecture about Mizzou’s plans to replenish a stock of capable ball-handlers on its roster.
Since a loss to Florida State in the NCAA tournament, coach Cuonzo Martin and his staff have largely limited the scope of their search for players to fill that void. The full-bore recruitment of Webster Groves point guard Courtney Ramey, launched back in February, remains front and center. Meanwhile, MU’s staff has hung back in the transfer market, extending just two other offers — Evansville’s Dru Smith and Maine graduate transfer Aaron Calixte — and only holding cursory conversations with other players.
In courting Smith, though, Martin was the lead and sole recruiter throughout the process, said Anthony Smith, Mark’s father and the coach at Metro East Lutheran in Edwardsville.
“Mark is a hard worker, and being tough on Mark is moot,” Anthony Smith told Rock M Nation when asked whether his son was ready for Martin’s demanding style. “But the fair and equal treatment of Mark as a player and a young man is huge for our family. We feel coach Zo and his coaches will bring out the best in Mark.”
Scoring a commitment from Ramey would provide the Tigers’ immediate relief at point guard, while senior Jordan Geist and freshman Xavier Pinson, who signed a letter of intent this week, bolster depth. With Geist’s departure after next season, Smith would inherit a clearly defined role and the minutes that go along with it.
It’s easy to envision a backcourt featuring Smith, Ramey and Whitfield wing Torrence Watson, another top-100 prospect and elite perimeter shooter. The trio would also share another trait: each was committed to or suited up for another program before being coaxed to Columbia.
In the near term, though, the Tigers still have two scholarships left at their disposal. While Ramey’s timetable is unknown, MU is slated to host Dru Smith for an official visit during the last weekend of April.
Mizzou’s courtship of Smith, a sturdy 6’3 and 215 pounds, has unfolded quietly. Aside from word of a scholarship offer and news of an official visit, there was scant information to get a read on his intentions.
“We understood more of what we were truly looking for as a family,” Anthony Smith said. “We knew what questions to ask and really had quality [conversations] with the players and coaches.”
The decision is a clear reset for the Edwardsville, Ill., native, who saw his profile rise with a stellar senior season. When Smith chose Illinois, analysts deemed it a crucial win for new coach Brad Underwood. And Underwood did little to tamp down expectations that his prize recruit would make an early dent for the Illini.
Smith backed up his coach’s bullish assessment early, scoring in double figures in four of his first five games and starting all but one of the Illini’s first 17 games. By the time Big Ten play arrived, however, Underwood had shifted him to a reserve role — a move spurred by Smith’s reported struggles on the defensive end, hot-and-cold shooting, and foul woes.
It didn’t help that he missed stretches with two bouts of illness. All the while, Trent Frazier became a catalyst in Illinois’ backcourt.
Smith didn’t break double figures in any of Illini’s last 17 tilts. He finished the year shooting 34 percent from the floor and 23 percent behind the 3-point arc. When he received his formal release from Illinois, he stressed that his skill set didn’t mesh with Underwood’s Spread offense.
MU recruited Smith last year but wound up re-recruiting C.J. Roberts, who had originally committed to Kim Anderson, and adding Blake Harris, a top-100 prospect with close ties to Michael Porter Jr. and Jontay Porter.
It remains to be seen just how Smith fits positionally. His size, physicality and slashing ability make him a natural fit at the wing, but he could wind up as a combo guard in an offense built around ball-screens and handoffs — a structure that would allow him to attack downhill and create kickoff opportunities for shooters spacing the floor.
But a year of individual development and a potential influx of talent from the 2019 class could arm Smith with the skills and a supporting cast to maximize his ability.
Martin “has a different approach, look and fit to his practices,” Anthony Smith said. “All players have active involvement in the practices, time with the strength and other coaches for individual development.”
Now undivided attention turns to Ramey, with debate murmuring in the background as to the guard’s ability to coexist with Smith in MU’s backcourt. In some quarters, the debate’s been framed crudely: the Tigers would have to choose between Ramey and Smith. Now we’ll see just how well that line of thought holds up.
Another pressing matter is whether Martin and his assistants ramp up their pursuit of veteran help on the wing. Evansville’s Ryan Taylor went off the board to Northwestern, while South Dakota’s Matt Mooney trimmed the Tigers from his list earlier in the week. That search will take on added urgency if Ramey commits elsewhere.
Also undetermined are the professional aspirations of combo forward Jontay Porter, who has declared for the NBA draft but is going through the process without an agent. If Porter gets the impression that he is likely to go off the board in the first round, it’s unlikely he’ll return to MU. But recent mock drafts have him drifting into the early second round. While it’s become more common for those players to sign guaranteed deals, it’s not assured. All of which leaves the door slightly cracked for Porter to stick around and elevate himself to a lottery pick in 2019.
For now, though, the staff has acquired a distressed asset in Smith. We’ll see if he winds up producing healthy returns.