Illinois athletics director Josh Whitman wanted to rekindle the glory days of Illini basketball when he made a coaching change last month, replacing John Groce with Brad Underwood.
Well, in a move that Groce rarely pulled off during his five-year tenure in Champaign, Underwood scored a huge recruiting win right out of the gates on Wednesday, when the state's Mr. Basketball, Mark Smith of Edwardsville High School, announced he'd be signing with Illinois.
The four-star recruit who earned his title of the best boys basketball player in the Land of Lincoln this past season generated a ton of excitement across the Illinois fan base, and the obviously excited Underwood is already using language sure to bring back the same kind of feeling that accompanied those aforementioned glory days.
"He's an explosive athlete. He's a very gifted athlete," Underwood said of his newest signee when speaking with reporters Thursday in Champaign. "First time I watched him, he reminded me a little bit of a former (Illinois) player, Deron Williams, but probably a better shooter at the same time at this point their careers."
Oh really, coach?
When a recruit of this magnitude — Smith is ranked as the No. 52 player in this year's class by Rivals — signs up with a team, fans are unsurprisingly amped. But comparing Smith to one of the program's all-time greats, a player who was perhaps the best on the team that reached the 2005 national title game, is sure to stir folks up even more.
While any comparisons to NBA All Stars and Olympic gold medalists might be considered a tad hyperbolic, there's no doubting that Smith is a sensational athlete and that he's a huge get for the Illini, someone who could make an instant impact in Underwood's first season.
"Some people have labeled Mark a specialist, a shooter. I don't see him as that at all. I think he's a great playmaker. I think he's a guy that can play the point and be a tremendous asset because he makes his teammates better," Underwood said. "He does whatever is needed in the course of a game. If that's scoring, he's going to score. If the defense loads to him, he's an extremely high-IQ player, he's got great feel, he's got great instincts.
"And physically he's in a position to play right away. Everybody's seen his body type, and he's a strong athlete. Usually freshmen have to develop physically. Mark doesn't. Mark's dialed in there and a very strong young man. But his skill set is very unique, and he's very well rounded in all aspects."
While the kind of athlete Smith is and his on-court prowess will be how most fans and observers judge him, his decision to play at Illinois is big for two other reasons.
First, a new head coach rarely gets to pick his first crop of players. Underwood will start his tenure at Illinois with a roster comprised mostly of Groce's recruits, including a pair of incoming freshmen in Trent Frazier and Da'Monte Williams, four-star guards in their own right. But, while Smith was being courted by Illinois prior to the coaching change, Underwood is the one who Smith committed to, and Underwood can count Smith as his first import to this program.
That means shaping his program's culture as much as it does shaping its style of play.
"In every way," Underwood said when asked how Smith works with the program he's trying to build. "Character wins. Yes, you have to be a very good player, there's no doubt about that. But character and the culture — he's got tremendous leadership. And I think that was evidenced at his press conference yesterday and how many people showed up and former teammates. That's a tremendous trait. Not everybody can pull that off. People are drawn to him, he's got that personality about him.
"He loves his teammates here. He's talked about that at length already and his relationships. That's exciting because that's a young man who's going to fit in well. We want to build our program around young men who win off the court just as much as they win on the court."
Second, Smith is a big in-state recruit. As mentioned, that's not something Groce could claim a lot of success in attracting. He missed out on a lot of Illinois' finest high school basketball products, famously losing close battles for the services of Jalen Brunson and Cliff Alexander. Groce's program didn't even come close on others, like stars Jabari Parker and Jahlil Okafor, who both played for Chicago native Mike Krzyzewski at Duke.
Landing Smith, the best player in Illinois if you go by his Mr. Basketball title, gives Underwood a win in one of the main categories fans care most about: recruiting the state.
"I think the lifeblood of our program is recruiting. And to be able to get Mr. Basketball in this state? We should," Underwood said. "We've got to be the option. Not just an option, we've got to be the option. We're the University of Illinois, and we've got one of the proudest, most dynamic histories. We've got a great tradition, we've got a great fan base.
"I think it speaks volumes, and I'm excited about that. I think it's something we can continue to build on, and it sure beats the alternative of not getting him."