Smith: 'I was disappointed to see him go'
After his three-week AAU season came and went without any power-conference offers, Edwardsville senior Mark Smith thought his high-major basketball possibilities were finished.
Then, he saw Illinois coach John Groce in the stands at the Collinsville Holiday Tournament, where he led his team to a title on Dec. 30 and earned MVP honors in the process.
“That’s when I realized (that my stock had risen),” Smith said. “After that, schools started coming in like crazy.”
Groce and Smith, the senior said after Edwardsville’s 76-64 Class 4A super-sectional loss Tuesday to Simeon at Redbird Arena, talked every day on the phone or via text.
Groce wasn’t one of the several college coaches in the stands at Edwardsville’s Class 4A Ottawa Sectional final win over Danville last Friday, when Smith scored 45 points.
Nor was Groce at Tuesday’s loss after Illinois parted ways with the fifth-year leader.
But after a game in which Simeon’s box-and-one held him to 12 points, Smith was thinking about the coach he’d grown close to in a process during which he’s met Chris Collins, Tom Crean, Thad Matta and Tim Miles, among others.
“Coach Groce and I talked every day,” Smith said. “I’m going to call him soon and tell him I thought he did a great job at Illinois.
“I really like Coach Groce. I wanted to play for Coach Groce. I like my other schools, too. I like Coach Collins, I like Coach Crean, I like everyone else who’s recruiting me, I like Coach Matta, Coach Miles. I like coach Groce a lot, too, and I was disappointed to see him go.”
Smith, whose stock took a dramatic rise this year after decommitting from Missouri’s baseball team, said he’d give the new Illinois coach, whoever it may be, a chance to build a relationship with him. But that doesn’t mean his condensed recruiting process will stop.
“I’ve still got to focus on my other recruiting until they get a head coach,” he said. “I guess who I’ve built a strong relationship with, that’s who I’m going to go with. I’m going to visit the schools who are my top choices, who are the schools who are most important to me.
“I kind of feel like I have an opportunity to develop because I know I’m going to get a good education. I’m going to try to develop and come in and make an impact as a freshman.”
Smith said he’s talked to the four Illinois Class of 2017 signees — Trent Frazier, Da’Monte Williams, Javon Pickett and Jeremiah Tilmon — since Groce’s firing, and they’re still discussing heading to Illinois together. And in the end, his conversations with Groce about heading to Illinois still linger.
“We just talked about what I could do for Illinois, what I could do in the state of Illinois,” Smith said about his conversations with Groce. “They have a great recruiting class, and I could come in and play point guard.
“They have a lot of good recruits: Trent, Da’Monte, Javon and Jeremiah. (Groce) said I could help run it, because Trent is such a good scorer, Da’Monte is a good scorer, Javon is good at getting to the rim, Jeremiah is really good in the post and athletic. He said so many things I could do.”