A few months ago, high school senior Mark Smith was weighing college basketball scholarship offers from the likes of Northern Illinois, Wright State and Southern Illinois-Edwardsville.
A few days ago, Hall of Fame coach John Calipari was sitting in his living room, offering Smith a scholarship to play for the Kentucky Wildcats.
“Speechless,” Smith said of that visit. “When you have a legend in your house, it’s kind of crazy.”
It’s been a kind-of-crazy few weeks for Smith, who has gone from a top high school baseball prospect to Illinois Mr. Basketball to one of the most coveted recruits in the country.
On Saturday night, Smith will play in the Derby Festival Classic in Freedom Hall.
Next week, he’ll return to the state for a recruiting visit to UK, which is still looking to add another backcourt player after losing every one of its scholarship guards from this past season’s team.
Smith will also visit Ohio State sometime in the next couple of weeks, and then he’ll have a decision to make. UK, OSU, Michigan State, which he visited last week, are all possibilities to land his commitment.
The 6-foot-5 guard from Edwardsville, Ill., has other options, too.
New head coaches at Illinois and Missouri, which had both been recruiting Smith before those coaching changes, made him a priority as soon as they took those jobs. He also visited Indiana and Northwestern during the basketball season.
Smith made it clear Thursday that he’s still very much interested in Kentucky, even though the Cats landed a commitment from another four-star guard — California sharpshooter Jemarl Baker — earlier this week.
UK assistant coach Kenny Payne has been the point man in Smith’s recruitment, and he texted him Wednesday night to wish him good luck in the Derby Classic.
Payne also wanted Smith to know that the Cats have room on next season’s roster.
“They said there’s no change with (Baker’s) commitment,” Smith said. “I still have a scholarship, and they still want me.”
Kentucky would like to add another player to a 2017-18 backcourt that will already include five-star point guard Quade Green, five-star shooting guard Hamidou Diallo, four-star combo guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Baker, who made 94 three-pointers this past season and announced his commitment to UK on Tuesday.
Smith was never supposed to be in this position.
He was actually a bigger star on the baseball field early in his high school career, and he committed to play for Missouri two winters ago, although he made that pledge with one eye on the 2017 MLB Draft.
Smith was that good as a pitcher, but an elbow injury last year derailed those plans.
He picked up a basketball full time — for the first time — and the college coaches started calling.
Smith was Edwardsville High School’s leading scorer as sophomore — so he had plenty of talent even then — but he really blossomed this past season, averaging 21.9 points, 8.2 rebounds and 8.4 assists as a senior, earning Illinois Mr. Basketball honors in the process. Rivals.com now ranks him as the No. 52 overall player in the 2017 class.
During the season, Smith didn’t dwell on what was next.
“Recruiting has not really been a big issue for Mark until now,” said Edwardsville Coach Mike Waldo. “During the season, I tried to talk with him some about his recruitment, and he didn’t really want to think much about it. He just wanted to play the season and help the team do well.”
Now, he’s the center of attention.
Smith said he enjoyed his Michigan State visit — spending lots of time with Tom Izzo and Miles Bridges — and the coaching staff pushed for a commitment during the trip, but he told them he wasn’t ready to make one just yet.
He wanted to see UK and Ohio State, too — coaches from both schools have been to his house in the past week — and he’s still mulling offers from the other major programs that have been recruiting him.
This will be a weekend a fun — Gilgeous-Alexander is his roommate at the Derby Classic, by the way — then it’s back home for Easter Sunday before the last two visits of his whirlwind recruitment. A final decision will come soon after.
“It’s kind of surreal,” Smith said. “You always dream of these schools that are coming after me to recruit you. It’s kind of like a dream come true, to see all of my hard work pay off.
“Now all the schools that I like are showing up.”