Just in case, they put 3-point lines on the court at Enterprise Center.
Illinois, it’s possible, might attempt some. And Missouri — now, let’s not get too carried away here — might make some.
The Tigers entered the weekend 340th in the nation in 3-point shooting percentage, dubiously nestled in the rankings between Maryland-Eastern Shore and Cleveland State. There are 353 total teams in Division-I. Meanwhile, Illinois is 332nd in 3-point attempts per game.
Illinois doesn’t need to make 3s to win Saturday’s Braggin’ Rights Game. Mizzou probably will.
Which leads us to Mark Smith. Last year, he was the big storyline heading into the game. This year, for Mizzou to upset Illinois, he needs to be the big story.
“When the 3-point shot falls for us,” coach Cuonzo Martin said Friday, “it changes our team drastically.”
Mark must leave his mark on Saturday’s game. Even though Mizzou won last year, Smith tallied only five points in 35 minutes. He actually made a bigger impact the year prior — for Illinois. As a freshman in orange and blue, before transferring and inspiring the boos, Smith scored 11 points in the 2017 win for the Illini. In this 2019 version of the rivalry, the onus is on Smith to create offense, to maestro the offense and master his stroke. Five times this year, Smith has made more than one 3-pointer in a game, and Mizzou is 4-1 in those matchups. And it’s going to be tough for the Tigers to score in the paint against this opponent.
“I think the 3-pointer is very important, especially if we knock some down,” Martin said. “That’s one of the things I think we can do well — now, we haven’t shown it well, but we have guys who are very capable of knocking down several 3s in a game.”
He says that, sure. But the stats show otherwise. Smith, right now, is the only guy seemingly capable of knocking down 3s.
This season, Smith is shooting 40.9 percent from 3-point range; the rest of the Tigers are shooting 20.9 percent.
This season, Smith has made 27 3s; the rest of the Tigers have made 35.
Of course, if someone such as a Torrence Watson or Kobe Brown can get going from 3, it could significantly alter the game. Watson is from St. Louis (Whitfield), and there’s often that extra X-factor for a fellow in the Braggin’ Rights Game. But this is a Tiger team that shoots 26.6 percent overall from 3, yet is 134th in the nation in 3-point attempts. If someone is going to have a big game with the 3-ball, it is likely going to be Mark Smith, another local product (Edwardsville).
Since Mizzou’s inexplicable loss to Charleston Southern, Smith has shot 500-1,000 3-pointers a day. He is driven. And he’ll drive to the paint, depending on what defenses give him, but his main thing is the 3-ball. He made seven of them is the most-recent game, a win against Southern Illinois Carbondale. Though no bragging rights come from beating Southern Illinois Carbondale (and definitely not the kind that replace the final ‘g’ with an apostrophe).
“Mark is a good leader for our team,” Martin said of the 6-foot-5 junior who leads the Tigers in scoring (12.9 points per game). “Mark is a guy who can make 3-point shots and has really improved his overall game. His work ethic is tremendous. I think right now his ability to knock 3-point shots down, that’s what people identify him as, but he’s also a guy who can put the ball on the floor, can make plays. And he’s really improved as a leader.”
One particular positive for Mizzou is that Smith is about as confident as a human can get. Or at least, says he is. “I think every time I shoot it, it’s going in,” said the reigning 3-point percentage leader in the Southeastern Conference. “If I miss it, I miss it, and the next shot, I forget about it.”
He smiled often on Friday when discussing the boos from last year’s game, his first since transferring across the border. He kept saying it was “a great feeling.” He seemed to enjoy the attention. There’s something cool about that, a player embracing the emotions, erasing the tension. Jeremiah Tilmon, who committed to Illinois but signed with Mizzou, joked to Smith that “the game isn’t about me anymore. Everyone was looking at me, booing me, and now they hate you more than they hate me!”
Smith said he keeps in touch with some of the older players from his freshman year at Illinois. As for Trent Frazier, the heralded guard he’ll likely guard during the game, “Trent and I, we were best friends at Illinois, but we don’t really talk that much anymore.”
As for Frazier’s Illini, they don’t shoot many 3s — they’re 332nd in attempts per game (17) and 323rd in makes per game (5.3). They’ll feed the inside. They score mid-range jumpers. They’ll shoot the occasional 3, but it’s not part of their arsenal.
As seen, Mizzou doesn’t have much of an arsenal — but if Mark Smith can be a marksman, this game could be closer than people think it will be.