COLUMBIA, Mo. — When Illinois released freshman guard Mark Smith from his scholarship last month, Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin quickly contacted Smith and his family and reignited a relationship years in the making.
Martin recruited the guard from Edwardsville when he was the head coach at the University of California, and when he left the West Coast for Mizzou last spring Martin continued to heavily pursue the player crowned Mr. Basketball in the state of Illinois.
But Smith was drawn to his state school, signed with the Fighting Illini and played against Martin’s Tigers in December’s Braggin’ Rights Game.
After an unenven freshman season, Smith hit the transfer market this spring and Mizzou became “a no-brainer” as his next destination, his mother said Sunday.
“It wasn’t like we were beginning fresh with Coach Martin,” Yvonne Smith said in a phone interview after returning from Columbia. “It’s (Martin’s) passion for the game and the bond that he has with his players. It’s very strong and very obvious. It’s a mutual respect. That’s something that stood out and was very evident. It was kind of like a no-brainer. His father and I are very excited.”
The 6-4 guard will have to sit out the 2018-19 season per NCAA transfer rules and will have three seasons of eligibility beginning in 2019-20.
Smith and his family, Yvonne and his father Anthony, began the visit in Columbia joining Martin and assistant coach Chris Hollender downtown for dinner at Addison's on Friday. They visited Mizzou Arena following the football team's Black and Gold Game on Saturday afternoon and had brunch with the staff at Sophia’s on Sunday.
“I feel like (Martin) has my best interests in mind and we just have a very good relationship,” Smith said in a phone interview Sunday. “I like the fact that it’s a family atmosphere and he really wants what’s best for me. And I like their style of play.”
Smith started 19 games for the Illini this past season and averaged 5.8 points and 1.4 assists in 19 minutes per game. He struggled to develop a consistent jumper, shooting just 23.2 percent from 3-point range and saw his playing time and production slip once Big Ten Conference play began.
After scoring double-figure points in four of his first five games he was held to single digits in his last 17 appearances. His last double-digit outing came in the Braggin' Rights Game when he scored 11 points in 25 minutes against Mizzou.
Smith battled the flu during the season and was hospitalized at one point. In the second half of the season, freshman Trent Frazier emerged as Illinois’ primary ball-handler as Smith played more of a reserve role on the wing.
“He was bounced around a little bit from the one (point guard) to the two (shooting guard) to the three (wing) and it seemed like he played more of the three,” Yvonne Smith said. “I can only just stress it wasn’t the right system for him. That’s all I’m going to say.”
Mizzou’s staff envisions Smith playing both guard spots in the backcourt, Smith said.
Yvonne Smith believes her son will make the most out of having to sit out the coming season.
“I think he’ll be OK,” she said. “It’s hard to sit. It’s like having an injury. You hate watching everyone else play and you wish you were out there playing with them. But he’s going to work hard and regain some confidence. He’s a gym rat. It’s not like you don’t get to practice with the team. The only thing you don’t get to do is play in the games. So it’s not like he’ll miss out on weightlifting or running drills or getting familiar with the offense. He’ll constantly work on his fundamentals and his body and his mobility. There’s still a lot of positives.”
“Plus,” she said, “Mark is young. He’s just 18. (Smith turns 19 in August.) I could look at this like he could be a senior in high school and it’s like he’s starting his freshman year all over again.”
Since deciding to transfer Smith said he also considered Boston College, Creighton and Kansas State.
Smith was once committed to join Mizzou’s baseball team as a pitcher before he suffered an elbow injury and shifted his focus to basketball at Edwardsville High School. He was named the Illinois Gatorade Player of the Year after averaging 21.9 points, 8.2 rebounds, 8.4 assists and 2.1 steals as a senior in 2017.
“We’ve been to Missouri before many times,” Yvonne Smith said. “It’s strange how God brings you back to where you started. This is the best fit for Mark. He’s very excited. Coach Martin is going to take good care of him.”