Randle set to lift off in his last season



By Jeff LaBelle

Brian Randle won’t get any more chances. And he knows it.

Entering the fifth and final season of his Illini career, one that’s been marred by constant injury, four surgeries and criticism of on-court mental lapses, the 6-foot-8 forward is ready to make this season count.

“It’s not how I would have played it out by any means,” Randle said. “I never saw myself having one surgery, let alone four – but that’s just life. You don’t know what’s around the next corner. I’ve said it before, it’s just the way the script was written.”

This is Randle’s final chance to prove himself on the college level before testing his body at NBA camps and the pro ranks beyond that. He can’t mentally take himself out of games anymore, dropping his head after missed shots. He’ll have to use the athleticism that makes him one of the more explosive players in the Big Ten, if not the country, to be consistent on both ends of the floor.

And he’ll have to do it surrounded by a mostly unproven group of players with limited college experience. Along with Shaun Pruitt and Chester Frazier, Randle is expected to lead in the continued success of a basketball program that has the most victories of any college team in the past four years.

“The guys that we have, the success I feel we can achieve, I don’t see any reason we wouldn’t make the NCAA Tournament this year,” he said.

If the pressure is on, Randle doesn’t show it. Sitting at a table, dressed up in slacks and a nice button-up shirt, Randle’s voice rings as calmly as it always does, suppressed and soft. With every reporter in attendance at Big Ten Media Day come questions about his durability and concerns about who will step up next to him. The Illini have to replace the graduated co-MVPs from last season: Warren Carter and Rich McBride.

The shooting guard spot, likely to be earned by either Trent Meacham or junior transfer Steve Holdren, is undecided. Mike Tisdale, the 7-foot-1 center from Riverton, figures to see extensive playing time this year behind Randle even without much experience. On top of that, the futures of reserve forwards Mike Davis, Bill Cole, Richard Semrau and Brian Carlwell have yet to be secured.

“I think we’ve got a great chemistry to be honest,” Randle said. “This team really enjoys being around each other on and off the court. I think everybody gets along, has an understanding of each other’s personalities. That, in itself, can separate a team from being good and mediocre to being great.”

A bright spot in the early goings has been the emergence of junior college transfer Rodney Alexander, a 6-foot-7 forward from Benton Harbor, Mich. Randle said opposing teams will have their hands full guarding the two of them at once.

“That would be a rough day for whoever’s on the other team,” Randle said. “He’s kind of like my partner in crime, just in terms of the damage we can do running the 3 or 4. He’s an explosive player, he’s very strong, and we’ve got a good relationship, man. We love playing with each other. We enjoy running the wings together.

“We talk on a daily basis and we’re excited about playing together,” he added.

Randle was fifth on the team in scoring last season at 7.4 points per game and third on the team in rebounds with five per game. The opportunity will be there to improve those numbers substantially this season – assuming Randle stays healthy. The one thing he knows he can improve on, though, besides the numbers, is his demeanor on the court. It’s what, he says, held him back in the past.

Head coach Bruce Weber doesn’t hide his disappointment in Randle’s mental lapses, and watches the forward take himself out of plays and games by getting preoccupied with missed shots and mistakes.

“It’s not a knock on me, by any means, because that’s just how I’ve tended to be,” Randle said. “This year, between Coach Weber, Coach McClain, the other coaches, they really wanted me to concentrate on letting things go. This play is this play and the next play is the next. You know, one at a time.

“Basketball is too fast sometimes. For me, it’s affected me in games because when I’m worrying about something two plays down the road, that can be the difference in the game.

“I just, you know, worry too much. That’s something I’m working through and the coaching staff is helping me out with. If I could change it I would. That’s why I’m trying.”

Through team practices, scrimmages and the first exhibition game this season, Randle looks to be gaining confidence as an emerging leader for the Illini. In the team’s exhibition opener against Quincy, Randle finished with six points, three assists and one rebound in 10 minutes of play before leaving with a bruised knee. He led the team with 19 points in the Orange and Blue Scrimmage and Randle’s emergence could help take pressure off of Shaun Pruitt down low.

“He’s a great teammate, a great athlete and he’s probably the most talented player we’ve had in a while,” senior center Pruitt said. “He’s just had injuries, something that you can’t control. It kind of bothers me when people say something about him because people act like he controls when he gets injured. This year is going to be his year, though. That’s how I feel about it.”

Randle knows his injuries, inconsistency and his lack of game-changing production in the past may have altered how fans perceive him, but he’s tried not to let it hinder his game. Expectations were high when he was recruited as a top-50 player in the country and a First-Team All-State selection by the Chicago Sun-Times. However, following his freshman year, Randle missed the 2004-05 season with a medical redshirt after breaking his hand.

“It hurts, honestly,” said Randle about being labeled an ‘underachiever.’ “You try to give everything you can and it’s easy to sometimes look past that as a fan, as an outsider. ‘He’s supposed to be this, he’s supposed to be that.’ ‘He hasn’t done this.’ But it comes with the territory. People are going to feel what they feel. You just can’t let it bother you. If you want to hate, you can hate. If you want to congratulate, either way I’m going to do what I can do.”

“I’m sure people have caught me on days and thought, ‘I hate Brian Randle.’ Other people might catch me and think, ‘You know, he’s a good guy.’ I’m a human, Shaun Pruitt’s a human. Some days are better than others.”

And maybe some years, too, are better than others.

Randle’s due for a good one.