The next few days will likely decide the course of the next few years in the basketball career of Mark Smith, who has emerged in recent weeks as one of the most coveted recruits remaining in the class of 2017.
Smith — a 6-foot-5 guard from Edwardsville, Ill. — was in Kentucky for last week’s Derby Festival Classic at Freedom Hall, and he’ll return to the state, likely later this week, for a recruiting visit to UK, one of the unofficial finalists in his recruitment.
Smith was hesitant to name any favorites during his discussions with reporters over the weekend, but UK, Illinois, Michigan State and Ohio State were names that kept popping up in those interviews.
Coach John Calipari visited Smith and his family a couple of weeks ago — on the first day of the live recruiting period — and offered a UK scholarship during that meeting.
Calipari also told Smith how he might fit in with a team that is already set to feature five-star guards Quade Green and Hamidou Diallo, as well as four-star guards Jemarl Baker and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
“He showed me videos of Jamal Murray — how he can spot up shoot and play off the ball and run off screens. Hit opens shots,” Smith said.
He added that UK and Michigan State see him as more of a combo guard, while Illinois and Ohio State view him as strictly a point guard.
“I feel like I’m better with the ball in my hands as a point guard, but I can play either/or,” he said.
Most of the questions thrown his way this past week were about the Wildcats.
The UK fans in attendance at Saturday night’s Derby Classic cheered when Smith was introduced. Before the game, he joked around on the court with Gilgeous-Alexander, his roommate for the event. “We became good friends,” Smith said.
Gilgeous-Alexander, the Derby Classic MVP, acknowledged that he gave his new friend a UK recruiting pitch or two during their time together. “He’s a cool guy. He’s got a lot of talent and a great future. And hopefully he comes (to UK),” he said.
Smith, who had seven points, six rebounds and four assists in the all-star game, also caught the ESPN “30 for 30” on Calipari, a film that premiered Thursday night. “It was a good documentary. I enjoyed watching it,” he said, noting that the UK coach had already told him his back story, so he didn’t really learn anything new.
Smith has also been spending time with Hall of Fame coach Tom Izzo.
He said he’s been communicating with Izzo every day since Michigan State extended a scholarship offer a few weeks ago. He took an official visit to East Lansing a couple of weekends ago.
Smith said future NBA lottery pick Miles Bridges told him on that trip that he was coming back to play with the Spartans next season.
“We could be a Final Four team — have a chance to win a national championship if I was to come there,” Smith said of Sparty’s pitch. “They feel like they can develop me into an NBA player.”
Illinois is the home-state school that was recruiting Smith well before new head coach Brad Underwood took over the Illini program last month. On his first day on the job, Underwood placed a call to the state’s reigning Mr. Basketball, the first step in his quest to keep Smith close to home for the next few seasons.
“I like Coach Underwood,” Smith said. “I feel like he’s going to do good things there. They said I would have the ball in my hands a lot and be able to make plays. And they’re bringing in good players.
“He talked to me about how I could fit in to his program. (He said) they’d love for me to be a part of Illinois basketball and try to change it and make history.”
Smith said he might take another unofficial visit to Illinois before making his college decision, an announcement that could come as early as next week. He’s also planning to visit UK and Ohio State over the next few days.
The Wildcats are looking for one more guard to join their young backcourt for next season. Smith averaged 21.9 points, 8.2 rebounds and 8.4 assists as a senior, shooting 40 percent from three-point range.
He wants to get on the court right away next season.
“I know I’m going to get a great education wherever I go,” Smith said. “But just having an impact as a freshman and developing into the best basketball player I can, so I can hopefully achieve my dreams. Go to the NBA.”