Future Illini end shines in his final hoops game

Future Illini end shines in his final hoops game

PEORIA — One day.

That's all that Keith Randolph gave himself. One day to celebrate Belleville West's second straight Class 4A state basketball championship. A one-day break after the end of his basketball career.

Because today? Today, Randolph turns from Belleville West power forward to future Illinois defensive end for good.

"I'm starting back getting on the turf," Randolph said Saturday night on the floor at Carver Arena after Belleville West's 71-59 victory against Evanston. "Starting back eating right. I've got to hit the weight room hard. You can't be great if you're resting. I've got to get after it (today). Be on the turf with footwork and get-offs. Running. Get back in football shape. Looking at the playbook."

The Illinois football staff sent Randolph an offseason training packet after he signed in December. A thick one, as Randolph held his fingers about three inches apart to denote just how much information he got from his future coaches.

"I'm going to start hitting that really hard," he said. "Get in the weight room, get my footwork right. I'm just scratching the surface. When I start getting after it, I'm going to be a great player."

Randolph first tried football at age 10 but didn't initially like it. He was a basketball player first and attended Christian Brothers College Prep in St. Louis as a freshman intending to play just that. Then he transferred to Belleville West, was encouraged to try football again and turned himself into a high-major Division I football recruit by his senior season.

Randolph helped lead Belleville West to a 7-2 record last fall before the Maroons fell in the first round of the Class 7A playoffs to Wheaton Warrenville South. He earned News-Gazette All-State honors after finishing his final high school season with 65 tackles, eight sacks and three fumble recoveries. The 6-foot-5, 270-pound defensive end — ranked as a consensus three-star recruit — signed with Illinois over a slew of other Power Five offers including Florida State, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan State, Minnesota, Purdue, Rutgers, Syracuse and Virginia.

Illinois' loyalty to Randolph paid off. He wound up the most notable signing day addition for the Illini during the first signing period.

"They were my first Power Five (offer)," Randolph said. "Then after they offered me, they never stopped recruiting me. They stayed on strong the whole entire time. That's why I love Illinois. I love (defensive line coach Austin Clark). He keeps it real with me, and so does Coach (Lovie) Smith.

"A whole lot of schools recruit like a thousand different places. Like Missouri offered a defensive end from Hawaii. Illinois stays in here and knows they can build up something great in our state."

Randolph said he would bring a "swagger and physicality and that toughness" to Memorial Stadium. It's the same thing he gave Belleville West on the basketball court, using his physicality to average 9.3 points and 7.5 rebounds for the now-two-time defending state champions.

Randolph came up big in the Maroons' 70-48 semifinal win against Curie on Friday, scoring a team-high 19 points to go with six rebounds. He had five points and six rebounds (four offensive) in Saturday's title game.

"This is like the best feeling I've ever had," Randolph said. "Me knowing that this was the last time I'd ever lace up some sneakers, it's just fantastic for us to go out with a state championship and for it to be my second."

Randolph isn't the biggest, but he was hard to handle on the basketball court and especially around the rim. Think Charles Barkley without the vertical. Even though he's committed to moving forward with football, basketball was his "first love."

"If Keith wanted to play basketball, he really could have," Belleville West forward E.J. Liddell said. "He says he's a football player, but he was a basketball player before he was a football player. We played our whole lives together. I didn't know Keith until about sixth grade when our middle schools played each other. He came out there wide-shouldered, probably two inches shorter than me, but he came out there playing hard.

"I hate playing against him in practice. That's probably one of the strongest dudes I ever went up against besides (former Edwardsville standout turned Iowa defense end) A.J. Epenesa. Keith's very aggressive."

Illinois football fans will get to experience that aggression instead.

"He's going to kill it," said Liddell, a one-time Illinois basketball recruiting target who signed with Ohio State last November. "That's where he wanted to go, that's where he felt like he was comfortable at and I'm supporting him 100 percent."