For three mainstays in Missouri's starting lineup this season, something just wasn't right during last year's Braggin' Rights game between the Tigers and Illinois.
Wearing Ilini orange-and-blue, Mark Smith scored 11 points and was a big factor in his team's 70-64 win over Missouri. But on that fateful December night in St. Louis, Smith perhaps took a moment to consider why he chose to play at Illinois.
"I really committed (to Illinois) to play with Javon (Pickett) and Jeremiah (Tilmon)," Smith said on Dec. 24 of this year.
And yet Smith didn't find himself playing with Tilmon, but against him, as Tilmon was sporting Missouri black and gold that night. And Pickett, meanwhile, was watching the game as a Missouri recruit.
Smith, Tilmon and Pickett were all committed to attend Illinois at one point. They wanted to play together, and Illinois seemed like the perfect place to do it. So what happened? By last year's game, why was Smith the only member of the trio playing for coach Brad Underwood's team?
Here is the story of why things didn't work out at Illinois for Smith, Tilmon and Pickett, and how the three made it to Missouri to fulfill Smith's wishes.
From flamethrower to Mr. Basketball
When college basketball programs from across the country first began contacting Smith during the summer, he told them he wasn't interested. Rather, he'd already made up his mind and committed elsewhere — at a school where he had a great relationship with the coaching staff and where he was already in love with the campus. That school was Missouri, and Smith had every intention of being a great pitcher on former MU baseball coach Tim Jamieson's team.
"Coach Jamieson being a pitcher, I really didn't have to worry about college anymore, so it was pretty exciting coming to Mizzou and the (Southeastern Conference)," Smith said.
But as many flame-throwing pitchers across all levels of baseball know, the injury bug is hard to avoid. Hampered by a strained tendon in his elbow that kept him off the mound, Smith grew more and more frustrated.
"He just wasn't letting it rest long enough," Smith's mother, Yvonne Smith, said over the phone. "He was just taking three-to-four weeks off, when he probably needed to take two-to-three months off for it to heal correctly.
"I think he was just getting agitated and frustrated and kind of down in the dumps. So when we went to see Dr. Mark Halstead in St. Louis, he told Mark, 'You need to stay active. You need to do other things. I know you like to play basketball — you don't throw a basketball 90 miles per hour.'"
Looking to get Smith involved in AAU basketball, his father, Anthony, contacted Andre McMurray, a coach at Ramey-Jets United. The Smiths hoped their son could attend practices and maybe come to some of the Jets' tournaments.
But McMurray saw far more than a re-occurring player in Smith. He saw a player who could fill a need on his team, just as Smith is doing all of these years later at Missouri.
"Just looking at him, looking at his build, looking at his athleticism, I definetly thought that he was a high-major kid," McMurray said over the phone. "But he had to get out there and be seen and kind of get on the (AAU) circuits, so these colleges can see him and see him against some of the best players in the country."
So Smith joined McMurray's team in the summer of 2016, and did he ever get seen. There, he met Pickett, already a member of the Jets. Smith's transition from a baseball recruit just looking to stay active to Illinois' Mr. Basketball took off during the last AAU event of summer, the Sunflower Showcase in Shawnee, Kansas.
With coaches from many of the nation's top programs looking on, he struggled in the first half of one of the Jets' games in the showcase, and McMurray didn't start him coming out of halftime. McMurray felt that Smith wasn't seizing the moment, so in front of those coaches, he dressed him down.
"He was really bothered, and I tell you, when I put him in after those first five minutes of the second half, I mean the kid put together probably a 15-minute stretch that I hadn't seen before," McMurray said. "I've seen a lot of really, really good kids. He was phenomenal — he did everything. He shot it from 3, he guarded, he dunked the ball. I mean, he did absolutely everything."
After that performance, McMurray's phone was abuzz with calls from assistants at Kentucky, Louisville, Michigan State, and, of course, Illinois.
With Smith now focused on basketball, he had to figure out where he wanted to attend college. So he turned to his friend from nearby East St. Louis, Illinois, someone with whom he'd played basketball since grade school.
Smith's roots with Missouri go a long way back, but they're nothing compared with Tilmon's history at Illinois.
When former Illini coach John Groce, now the coach at Akron, took the job at Illinois in 2012, he began to recruit Tilmon, just an eighth grader at the time. Over many years, their relationship grew stronger and stronger. On Jul. 11, 2016, Tilmon committed to Groce's program.
"Being that he started recruiting me in eighth grade — (Groce) and (assistant coach) Jamall Walker — I had a great relationship with them," Tilmon said. "I looked at them like I could call them for anything, for any advice. I mean, they were good people to me."
Phillip Gilbert, now the athletic director at Madison (IL) High School, was Tilmon's coach when played his senior season at East St. Louis High School. Tilmon values loyalty and trust, and Groce and Walker had shown that, Gilbert said.
"(Illinois) came to practice and watched (Tilmon) work out in the summertime. He was excited to play for Illinois," Gilbert said.
Meanwhile, Pickett, Smith's Jets' teammate, also found himself looking for a place to play college basketball. Illinois liked Pickett's motor, according to his high school coach, Abel Schrader. The Illini were the only high major team to offer Pickett a scholarship, so he took Groce's offer.
The plan was in motion. Tilmon and Pickett were committed to go to Illinois, and Smith was close to joining the Illini.
But then, everything changed.
Change in Champaign
Groce has always had a reputation for being personable. While his recruits certainly believed in Illinois, they really bought into Groce. When the school fired Groce on March 11, 2017, and hired Underwood a week later, the new coach had little time to convince members of Groce's class to stay.
Tilmon just couldn't reach that same level of trust with Underwood, whose reputation as a hard-headed, demanding coach is very different than Groce's style. So a little over two weeks after Underwood took the job in Champaign, Illinois, Tilmon re-opened his recruitment.
According to McMurray, Pickett and his family didn't feel like as much of a priority to Underwood. The coaching change "ruffled" him; so two days after Tilmon de-committed, Pickett did as well.
The plan had fallen apart. Smith still chose to attend Illinois, committing on April 26, but he'd head there without Tilmon and Pickett.
Meanwhile, Missouri had hired Cuonzo Martin to replace Kim Anderson; and combined with the high-profile addition of Michael Porter, Jr., MU was back on the basketball map.
Before Martin even reached out to Tilmon, a fanbase eager for a revitalized program was on the job.
"After I de-committed from Illinois, I hadn't even said anything to Mizzou. It was more the fans talking," Tilmon said.
Eventually, Martin joined the conversation, and for the two East St. Louis, Illinois natives, it was a natural pairing.
"(Martin) means a lot (to basketball people from East. St. Louis). What he stands for, as far as outside of basketball, is probably what got (Tilmon, Pickett and Smith) there from this area," Gilbert said. "He's a player's coach, and he speaks life lessons to those guys."
Pickett bought into those life lessons, too, and so after re-classifying due to injury, pushing his move to college back a year, Pickett committed to Missouri.
Smith's career at Illinois in the 2017-18 season started as well as he could have hoped. He reached double figures in scoring in four of his first five games, proving he was ready to play at a high level from the start.
But his 11-point performance for the Illini in last year's Braggin' Rights game was the last time that season he reached double digits. As the season wore on, he felt less and less comfortable in Underwood's system. A player Tigers fans have come to know as a drop-dead shooter from deep, Mark Smith's 3-point percentage at Illinois ended up at 23.2 percent last year.
With his production waning and Pickett and Tilmon elsewhere, Smith decided to transfer. That campus he'd already fallen in love with once was just a two-hour drive from his hometown of Belleville, Illinois. The decision was easy.
"It was a no-brainer. To be here with almost family, and Coach Martin, I really built a trust with him," Smith said.
This time around, during the 2018 edition of the Braggin' Rights game on Saturday (7 p.m.) at Enterprise Center in St. Louis, Smith will be on the same side as Tilmon and Pickett — the way he wanted it to be years ago. And with all of the tangled alliances formed over the years, the game figures to be a battle.
McMurray has been around St. Louis basketball for a long time. He knows these programs and many of the players involved in the Braggin' Rights game well.
"It's gonna be something crazy," McMurray said. "I'll tell you this, the officials will have to make sure they've got a hold of it."
Supervising editor is Michael Knisley.