Following an offseason that saw plenty of roster turnover, Ohio State men’s basketball will have to turn to new stars to help lead them through the 2020-21 season.
Sophomore forward E.J. Liddell is one of the players that could fill that gap. Liddell burst onto the scene during the stretch run for the Buckeyes last season, and with former Buckeye big man Kaleb Wesson heading to the NBA draft, Liddell is expected to take the next step in his development.
“I’m really excited about his next step, whatever that looks like, as a sophomore,” Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann said in an appearance on the “Morning Juice” podcast Sept. 4.
In his freshman season, Liddell played largely off the bench behind the Wesson brothers and senior forward Kyle Young. This was a dramatic shift from his high school career, when he dominated Illinois high school basketball.
Liddell led Belleville West, in Belleville, Illinois, to two straight state championships and gathered two Mr. Basketball awards in 2018 and 2019, which is given to the state’s best player. He led the Maroons in scoring and rebounds in both his junior and senior seasons.
“The bigger the game, the better the opponent, the better he plays,” former Belleville West coach Joe Muniz said in an interview with the Chicago Tribune.
Liddell joined Illinois high school basketball legends Derrick Rose, Jabari Parker and Shaun Livingston as the only players to earn Mr. Basketball honors while leading their teams to back-to-back state titles.
On Oct. 1, 2018, Liddell, a junior in high school at that point, made his decision to commit to Ohio State over his home state’s team, the University of Illinois. However, he originally thought he would be spending Saturdays at Ohio Stadium rather than playing on the hardwood of the Schottenstein Center.
“When I was a kid, I always loved Ohio State. I’ve watched Ohio State my whole life,” Liddell said Oct. 1, 2018 in an interview with the Belleville News-Democrat. “I thought I was gonna be a football player, I imagined myself in an Ohio State jersey as a football player. But, when I noticed that I was a basketball player, I still had the love for them also.”
Early in his freshman year as a Buckeye, Liddell struggled to find his role on the team.
“He went through normal ups and downs that freshmen would go through and I would bring him up to my office and he’d wonder why he’d only play 14 minutes in a league game,” Holtmann said.
Liddell would get his shot in an upset win over No. 7 Maryland on Feb. 23 as an ankle injury to Young opened the door for him to get increased playing time.
In the four games without Young, Liddell bumped his season scoring average up from 6.7 to 10.3 points per game during the four-game stretch. His efforts helped the Buckeyes go 3-1 to close out the season with two wins over ranked opponents in No. 19 Michigan and No. 23 Illinois.
“He took it on himself, he started working harder in practice,” Holtmann said. “He made that transition and he was one of our best players late in the year. It’s a credit to the kind of kid he is.”
Liddell’s breakout performance came March 5 against Illinois, where he almost ended up playing his college career, as he put together his first career double-double with 17 points and 11 rebounds. After that game, Holtmann knew Liddell had arrived on the big stage.
“He had that moment in January where he really adjusted. Like, ‘Whoa, this Big Ten play is really physical’ and you’ve got to play really, really hard. And he’s done that,” Holtmann said March 5.
However, with the COVID-19 pandemic causing the Big Ten and NCAA to cancel their postseason tournaments, Liddell is yet to experience postseason play.
As the Buckeyes have had to move on from their center piece in Wesson, Liddell fits the more well-rounded mold of the new-look squad.
“They are new players, but they are in that range of 6’7” or 6’8”. We have a lot of guys like that with E.J., Justice [Sueing], Seth [Towns] and Kyle Young. We have a lot of versatile guys,” Holtmann said.
While Liddell is looking to take the next step in his development on the court, Holtmann continues to show pride in the type of person he is off of it.
“[I] love E.J., you’d love him too,” Holtmann said. “You love being around E.J., he’s got a million-dollar smile, he’s a great kid.”