CHAMPAIGN – His nickname is Keithy Beefy, and it seems even a toned-up, slimmed-down Keith Biggers can't shake the tag.
"He's toned up a little bit," Champaign Central teammate Donald Stewart teasingly concedes. "But to us, he's the biggest guy on the court almost every game, so that nickname sticks with him."
By whatever name, the senior center has been making his 6-foot-5, 260-pound presence felt this season like never before. And it's helped carry the Maroons to a 21-7 record, a No. 4 ranking in Class 3A and a date tonight with Normal West in the Mount Zion Sectional semifinals.
"I think he's a big key to a lot of our success this year," Stewart said. "Teams know that if he gets going, there's no stopping him."
Biggers has averaged nearly a double-double for the season, with 12.5 points and a team-best 9.1 rebounds. Add in his deft passing touch – "I call him the best passing big man in the Big 12," Central coach Scott Davis said – and imposing strength around the basket, and the Maroons are just glad he's on their side.
"Our opponents have a hard time matching up with him," Davis said. "The (other) players have started to realize that teams, a lot of times, don't have an answer for him."
In the process, Biggers has answered questions that arose last season during an inconsistent, sometimes rocky junior campaign. His weight, listed at 280 on the preseason roster, hampered his stamina and his play.
"Last year, there were times he was just out of shape," Davis said, "and there were times that caused him fouls. There were times it caused him to be fatigued."
Biggers also ran into trouble off the court, receiving a school suspension that sidelined him for five games.
This season, however, the Maroons center has, by all appearances, been a motivated and conscientious teammate.
"It's been a lot more enjoyable year," Biggers said. "I'm getting a lot more playing time and I haven't been ineligible once this year. Last year was tough. I missed those five games ... (and) it kind of hurt me that I let my team down, but that made me work even harder."
That work shows in his frame and in his game. Hours of conditioning in the gym and lifting in the weight room have resulted in a leaner and stronger Biggers. One with more endurance, too.
"I feel a lot lighter," he said. "I feel a lot better. I'm in better condition to run up and down the court."
Davis noticed the change immediately.
"You could see it in the fall when he came back," the Central coach said. "There's not the baby fat on him that there was last year. It's 200 and whatever (pounds), but it's pretty firm."
A resculpted body might have benefited Biggers most on defense. With improved quickness, he's been less prone this season to pick up fouls in bunches.
"He has not been in the foul trouble, for the most part, that he got in last year," Davis said. "When you're in better shape, that allows you to move. So much of picking up fouls is just being a half-step late."
A toned-up Biggers also is seeing benefits on the offensive end. He's finishing his shots around the basket far more consistently than a year ago and moving better without the ball.
In Davis' view, the Maroon attack is never better than when the ball does consistently touch Biggers' hands, even if he doesn't shoot it.
"We've become a different team in the last month or so when we recognized how important he is to our offense," Davis said. "He is really unselfish with the ball. And when teams double- or triple-team him with the ball – which they will do – he'll find you."
Stewart goes one step further in praising Biggers' stature as a passer.
"We feel Keith is the best passing big man in the state of Illinois," the senior swingman said. "He threads the needle and gets the pass through just like a guard."
Remarkably, Biggers has exhibited the shooting range of a guard. A 58.7 percent shooter, he actually has a higher accuracy rate from three-point range. In 17 attempts from behind the arc, Biggers has connected 10 times.
"He does it in practice all the time," Stewart said. "He tries to get in shooting contests with the guards, thinking he can beat us. He never does, but he keeps it close.
"He can shoot the ball."
Not that Davis ever would be eager to see Biggers become a high-post center, though opponents undoubtedly would beg to differ.
"I have to remind him – they want you to take the three," Davis said. "They don't want you around basket."