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CHAMPAIGN — Brad Underwood paused for nearly five full seconds before answering a question about the University of Illinois’ most heralded freshman, Edwardsville’s Mark Smith.

“I have to be really careful when I talk about Mark,” Underwood said. “I’ve said this privately and now I’ll say it publicly. In my 30 years as a college basketball coach, from the day that young man arrived on campus to this day right now, I’ve never seen a young man improve more than he has.

“We all know he was Mr. Basketball in the state. He has big shoulders. I think he can handle that. He wants that pressure, he wants that expectation put on him.”

Underwood said many factors have led to Smith’s day-by-day improvement.

“Concentrating on one sport, having the opportunity to be in the gym every single day, finding out he can’t eat french fries, finding out what the weight room is. He never really truly lifted like he has now," the Illini coach said. "Look at his body. He’s in incredible shape. It has opened up his hips more. He’s made so many improvements. Now he has to learn the game and learn it at the college level.

“He has to learn to play in ball screens more, understanding that it’s not a 6-4 high school center that is hedging or helping. That it’s going to be a 6-9, 6-10 athlete and potential shot-blocker, that he has to learn to make those reads, learn how teams scout him. That will be drastically different than what he has seen at the high school level.

“He spends a ton of time on film. He lives and dies basketball and his commitment level is what has impressed me most.”

Illini Athletic Hall of Famers Mannie Jackson, the one-time owner of the Harlem Globetrotters, and Jerry Colangelo, regarded as the most powerful man in USA Basketball, each addressed the team prior to the start of Saturday’s practice, which Underwood said would last three hours.

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Sports Columnist

Sports columnist for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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