One moment Wednesday night encapsulated Illinois’ need to grow. Freshman Mark Smith was dribbling around the 3-point arc when some Iowa fans at Madison Square Garden chanted “3 … 2 … 1.”
It’s the oldest trick in the arena, but Smith let it affect him. He rushed a jump shot that he said Tyler Cook partially blocked. Officials awarded the ball to Iowa, deeming the shot an air ball.
“I knew it was late clock,” Smith said softly in a quiet Illini locker room after a 96-87 loss in the Big Ten tournament opener. “I thought I had enough space, but he tipped it.”
Smith said he expected more from his freshman season, which produced averages of 5.8 points, 1.4 rebounds and 1.4 assists on 33.7 percent shooting – 23.2 percent from long range.
“Yeah, I did,” he said, “but I will keep working at it every day. I will trust the process. Coach [Brad Underwood] is a big believer in that.”
The 2017 Mr. Basketball of Illinois was a huge get for the Illini, turning down the likes of Michigan State, Kentucky and Ohio State to play for his home-state team.
Underwood likened him to a future Hall of Famer before the season, saying: “He’s very special. Physically, he looks the part of a 20- to 22-year-old at 6-4, 220. It’s unfair for me to do it, but I compare him to Jason Kidd. He has that type of athleticism. And his natural instincts are to lead. Once the game slows down and he understands what he wants to do, he will be a fantastic leader. He’s a guy you will see play all over the court. He will be a tough matchup because of that body.”
Smith lost his starting role in late January, but Underwood remains bullish, saying: “Mark had an interesting year. He fought illness two or three different times and went through growing spurts that freshmen do. He’s going to be a really, really good player. I love his game. He’s a terrific offensive player. The old cliché is that the best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores. They’ve all got work to do.”
Underwood will have a nice mix of young and old on next year’s team, assuming fifth-year forward Leron Black returns. Fellow fifth-year big man Michael Finke sounded determined to push Illinois toward its first NCAA tournament bid since 2013, John Groce’s first season.
“I really want to be a foundation for what [this program] can be in the future,” Finke said. “I’ll do what I can to help be a better leader. Get better personally, but it’s more about this team coming together.”
Kipper Nichols, who scored 31 points in the season-ending loss, said: “Our youth has shown throughout the year. Once we come together as a unit and hone in on some stuff, the sky’s the limit. The coaching staff has done a tremendous job.”
Underwood bemoaned a 14-18 season that featured “three overtime losses early. Nebraska throws in a prayer at their place to beat us. Led by 15 at Ohio State. Led by 10 at Michigan. … We’ve got to get tougher, [but] our guys played great at the end. I liked our growth and development.”
Underwood anticipates losing only one veteran, guard Mark Alstork, whose scoring numbers – 5.8 points on 33.5 percent shooting – were almost identical to Smith’s.
Freshman Trent Frazier had a sensational season, scoring in double digits in 21 of his last 24 games.
“A lot of positives,” Underwood said. “And a lot of growth still to be had.”