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Mark Smith

Illinois guard Mark Smith (13) grabs the ball away from Wisconsin guard Brevin Pritzl (1) during the first half of their Big Ten game in Champaign. 

Playing amateur psychologist can be dangerous business and yet we can’t resist giving it a shot now and then.

We size up a person’s facial expressions, their body language and whatever other factors we can feed into our personal computer. Then we spit out a diagnosis we’re sure is spot on correct. Often we’re right.

The person with the snarling face is hot a happy man.

The person in the chair sitting limp and slumped is not excited and not engaged.

You see, I could charge $250 an hour for those keen insights.

So during the course of recent University of Illinois basketball games I’ve been keeping an eye on freshman guard Mark Smith.

A friend of mine told me he’s been doing the same thing, noting his expressions in games, on the bench and during team huddles. He’s paid attention to his body language. And he’s reached the same conclusion I have.

So on Saturday morning, just before coach Brad Underwood was going to lead his team through a practice in preparation for this afternoon’s game against Nebraska, I offered up my diagnosis. No charge.

One thing I like about Underwood is that you can float your theories and not once has he called one of us an idiot who should mind his own business. He may not agree, but he’s happy to express his own opinion and offer an explanation. That’s all anyone can ask.

So I told him: Mark Smith looks very unhappy.

Underwood disputed Smith’s level of unhappiness even if he agreed that he’s had far less to be laughing and joking about in his first college season than he or anyone else would have guessed.

There have been signs, like the night he scored 21 points to lead the Illini past DePaul. Or the night he came out aggressively and helped Illinois get off to a winning start against Missouri.

But he has struggled with defensive assignments and with fouls all season. He rarely shoots his jump shot anymore. And he’s been unable to use his 6-foot-4, 225-pound body to punish defenders on drives to the rim.

All of that was expected when he gave Illini fans a thrill by brushing aside flirtations from Michigan State, Kentucky, Duke and many other schools and saying he’d rather stay close to home by attending the University of Illinois.

In the world of Illini Nation, Mark Smith became an instant hero.

What no one properly calculated is that the adjustment from high school to college is sometimes awkward and takes time.

“I don’t see that,” Underwood said when the word ‘unhappy’ trickled from my mouth. “I think he’s a guy with a lot of pride, a young man who comes in here every day, grabs a coach and wants to continue to work.

“There is maybe a certain level of frustration that he’s not playing the way he thinks he should play. But that’s OK. All of my conversations with Mark have been to tell him you become better when you figure it out.”

Underwood has always worried more about Smith’s struggles on the defensive end than on his offense.

“The defensive end has been a big adjustment for him,” Underwood said. “Offensively he’s had his moments. The game is hard. It’s not easy. I see a kid who wants to be really, really good who has hit a bump in the road that has thrown him off center a bit. He’s doing everything he can to get back to center and he’s doing that. I appreciate that about Mark.

“The character piece with Mark will always allow him to get back to center.”

If it’s smiles and fist-pumping enthusiasm we’re hoping to see, Smith and this Illini team have had precious few moments for much of that. Maybe it's just disappointment I'm seeing, not unhappiness.

The truth is, there's been plenty to look grumpy about.

​Follow Mark Tupper on Twitter: @MarkTupper


Sports Columnist

Sports columnist for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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