One could slap a variety of labels on Mark Smith.
“I want to be successful. See the team win any way possible. The Accolades don’t mean anything to me," said the University of Illinois freshman.
Smith decided to come to Champaign to play for Illinois shortly after new head coach Brad Underwood was hired this past spring. The Edwardsville High School star could have chosen to play for anyone, anywhere. He chose Underwood and U of I for a reason.
He was the kind of person I need to help me achieve my goals -- just how he is, hard nose, always pushes you to be great every day," said Smith
“When you talk to him you just know that he has something about him that you want to play for him," he said.
And now, not only because of his natural talent but his work ethic, many believe Smith has a shot at being the best Illini basketball player in years.
"[He] Didn’t have the silver spoon per say. He had to work for it. Didn’t come easy. And he’s a guy that played JV as a sophomore," said Underwood.
The new head coach feels Smith has unlimited potential, comparing him to Jason Kidd. He also noted that there's no question Smith's commitment to Illinois has created the snowball that's needed to turn the Illini basketball culture into a winner.
“I think they’re gonna see tremendous versatility. I think they’re gonna see a guy that can play literally any position on the court except for the five spot," said Underwood.
“There’s a maturity about Mark you don’t see very often," he added. “They’re gonna see a gifted athlete, a guy that, his natural strength is scary ... This guy’s ceiling is extremely high and he’s a unique talent and a great, not a good, a great teammate.”
Smith is working as hard as anyone, not just shooting, but making at least 250 shots before and after practice. He's also in the weight room religiously -- all part of a work ethic he expects to rub of on his teammates.
“Every night we’re gonna play hard, as hard as we can to take the other team’s spirit," said Smith. "So I feel this year we’re just gonna play harder than a lot of teams and that’s what’s gonna get us a lot of wins.”
And Underwood, of course, is just as important to a winning equation.
“He pushes us every day to be the best player we can be," said Smith. "That’s really what the program is: defense, fighting for your teammates, playing hard, having each other’s back.”
Illinois opens up their season in Champaign at State Farm Center this coming Friday, November 10 against Southern.