Those who were lucky enough to be in Carver Arena in Peoria on a late winter Saturday night last March will never forget it.
Neither will the thousands of metro-east high school basketball fans who kept tabs on the game through social media as the final seconds ticked away in the Belleville West Maroons’ Class 4A state championship win over Chicago Whitney Young.
The defense begins Tuesday just a few miles down the road on the same Washington High School court.
Led by the reigning Illinois Mr. Basketball and Gatorade Illinois Player of the Year EJ Liddell, along with returning starters Keith Randolph and Lawrence Brazil III, the Maroons will take on Urbana High School at the Washington Tournament of Champions.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to Belleville News-Democrat
“It’s a phenomenal tournament and will once again be a great test for us,’’ Maroons coach Joe Muniz said. “We’ll get to see a number of different styles along with great competition. If you look at our schedule this year it is truly unbelievable. It really is.
“Hopefully, the goal in sight, is to finish the season like we did last year.’’
West, which finished 32-2 on its championship run, will take on Urbana at 8:45 p..m. Tuesday then face Lakewood, South Carolina at 12:45 p.m. Wednesday. The Maroons then will close out play in its four-team pool on Friday against Mobile (Ala.) Le Flore High School at 6:15 p.m.
The tournament concludes on Saturday. The Maroons placed second in the tournament a year ago, losing to Sam Houston (Texas) Math and Science, 84-74, in the title game.
Ranked 18th in the MaxPreps preseason national boys basketball poll and 32nd in the Prep Circuit.com poll to start the season, the Maroons are led by the top player in the state, and one of the best in the nation in Liddell. The 6-7 230-pound Liddell — who signed his national letter of intent to Ohio State Monday — averaged 20.8 points 8.2 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 5.8 blocked shots a game last season.
Liddell will combine with the 6-5, 250 pound Randolph (10.1 ppg, 6.9 rebounds) and Brazil (10.7 points, 2..5 assists) to form one of the top trios in the state. Among the losses to graduation a year ago is Malachi Smith who is currently playing NCAA Division I basketball at Wright State University.
While the loss of Smith, who scored 10 points in his college debut, is big, West still has a roster full of talented players.
“It’s hard to gauge from last year at this stage to this year. I do like what I see and I like what we have coming back,’’ Muniz said. “I do think this team will continue to get better as the year goes on just like did last year.
“But we’re not where we need to be right now. I’m not sure any team is. We’re not in sync right now and I think that will come when we start playing games. Some of the things we’ve talked about will start to come together.’’
Liddell will be the center of attention on both ends of the floor for West. A tireless worker, Liddell begins his final season as a Maroon as the best player on the court every night.
“It’s gone by fast. It’s hard to believe that a few years ago EJ was getting ready to start his freshman year and now he’s a senior. I love what we have around him,’’ Muniz said. “The thing about EJ is that every year he’s added another dimension to his game.
“This year I think you’ll see him handle the basketball a little more. You may even see him run the point (guard) from time to time. But by the same token, you want to stay with what brought you to the dance and with EJ that’s inside. We need to be able to get him the ball where he can have success.’’
Randolph, an all-state defensive lineman with close to 20 NCAA Division I football scholarship offers, also returns for his senior season.
“We had a great postseason and state tournament run last year but what Keith (Randolph) did at the state tournament last year was just phenomenal. We don’t win the state tournament without him,’’ Muniz said. “Right now Keith is still getting back into basketball after playing football. He is nowhere near where he will be later in the season. The thing about Keith is that he is such a load inside. The way he wants the ball is really something.”
Brazil will be playing college basketball at some level next season and will run the Maroons offense at the point guard spot much of this year. It was his Brazil who iced Belleville West’s championship with a steal and layup inside the final five seconds of overtime against Whitney Young.
“Lawrence is another player who just had a tremendous postseason and great state tournament last year,’’ Muniz said. “The thing about Lawrence is he’s a flat out winner. The kid just make winning plays.
“There are times when he makes mistakes and goes a little too fast, but he has a knack of making a big steal at the right time or makes a 3-point shot at the right time. He kind of solidifies us a little bit.’’
Seniors Marcellus Romious (6-4) and Will Shumpert (6-6) along with senior guard Jaylin Mosby (6-2) and heralded sophomore guard Tommie Williams (6-3) round out the Maroons “starting seven.”
Romious was a key off the bench a year ago, averaging 2.8 points and 2.3 rebounds, while Shumpert is a transfer from CBC in St. Louis.
“Marcellus was our first big off the bench a year ago and did a great job for us. He’s a good athlete who can rebound, is a good shooter and can do the job on the defensive end of the floor,’’ Muniz said. “Will (Shumpert) is one of the best athletes on the team and he’s like Keith (Randolph) in that he gives another big body inside.’’
Mosby, a starter early in the season a year ago, averaged just under six points per game. An excellent 3-point shooter, Mosby had 30 baskets from beyond the arc last season. Williams could be the star of the future for the Maroons.
“I’m really excited about Tommie. He has had a very good preseason and he just has a knack for scoring,’’ Muniz said. “Jaylin (Mosby) really played well at times last year and was a starter early in the season. He gives us another added dimension because he can shoot the ball and also tke it inside. Plus on most nights, he’s going to be guarded by the oppositions third or fourth best defender.’’
Also expected to play key roles off the bench will be Cameron Clark, Camden Seales, Keli’i Price and Deonte Wright.