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Illinois Mr. Basketball and NU target Mark Smith commits to Illinois

Northwestern hadn’t looked like a true contender for a while.

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What looked almost inevitable has become official: four-star guard Mark Smith has committed to the University of Illinois. He announced the news in the Edwardsville High School gym Wednesday evening.

The Illinois Mr. Basketball winner opted to stay close to home; Edwardsville is just a two-and-a-half hour drive from Champaign.

Northwestern had been recruiting Smith since late 2016 and offered in January. Illinois, however, was Smith’s first Big Ten offer. He’s since seen his recruitment blow up, receiving offers from Butler, Cal, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, Michigan State, Nebraska, and Ohio State, among others. Smith’s decision seemed to have come down to Illinois or Michigan State.

After firing John Groce and consequently losing four-star center Jeremiah Tilmon and three-star guard Javon Pickett’s commitments, this is a big pick-up for Illinois. New coach Brad Underwood is coming with a guard-heavy class that is headlined by Smith and fellow four-star Trent Frazier. Three-star recruit DaMonte Williams is heading to Champaign next year as well.

Illinois is losing a lot at the guard position next year, so Smith and his freshman counterparts should have a chance to contribute immediately. Tracy Abrams has finally exhausted his final year of eligibility and Jaylon Tate will graduate, as will D.J. Williams, and of course, leading scorer Malcolm Hill is gone. Underwood will have to make up 82 minutes per game at the guard positions.

So what does this mean for Northwestern? It’s another miss in the class of 2017. Chris Collins coveted athletic big man Clifton Moore, but he recently reaffirmed his commitment to Indiana.

Still, it’s not time to panic. Lone 2017 commit Anthony Gaines has continued to impress, and fresh off his new contract, Collins is hot on the 2018 recruiting trail with plenty of scholarships to work with. Also, just minutes before Smith’s announcement, Northwestern picked up wing A.J. Turner, who is transferring from Boston College (he’ll have to sit a year). This doesn’t change the fact that it’s been a tough recruiting period for Collins, missing out on top targets to Davidson, Wisconsin, Saint Louis, Texas A&M, Butler, Indiana, and Vanderbilt. With a tournament appearance under its belt and a newly renovated Welsh-Ryan ready for the 2018 season, these are recruiting battles that Northwestern should start winning soon.