After narrowly escaping with a 67-61 victory over Cleveland State last weekend, Ohio State now turns their attention to conference play, with the Purdue Boilermakers first up. An already undersized Buckeye squad will now face the task of winning games without E.J. Liddell, who has been arguably their best player thus far.
The 6-foot-7 sophomore led Ohio State in scoring (15.5 PPG) and rebounding (7.5 REB) through four games, but late last week it was announced Liddell would be out indefinitely due to illness, which would later be diagnosed as mononucleosis. On Monday afternoon, Chris Holtmann categorized Liddell’s situation as “day-to-day”, while saying that Seth Towns (knee) is “week-to-week”.
Ohio State's EJ Liddell (illness) is day-to-day moving forward, per Chris Holtmann. DNP in Sunday's win over Cleveland State. Was averaging 15.5 PPG and 7.5 RPG.— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) December 14, 2020
It can take a normal healthy adult anywhere from a few weeks to several months to recover from mono, so Holtmann’s “day-to-day” comments leaves the door open for Liddell’s return soon, maybe even tonight. I wouldn’t bank on him playing against Purdue, but as more details come out, it seems as though Liddell will be back on the court sooner rather than later.
As for Seth Towns? Go fish.
It goes unsaid that Ohio State will face their biggest challenge of the season on Wednesday evening in West Lafayette, but not for the reasons we would’ve thought a few weeks ago. The Boilermakers are a solid, talented team. They are 4-2 this season and are the 32nd best team in the country, according to KenPom.
However, Purdue has yet to beat a KenPom top-100 team this year, with their best win coming against Liberty (113). They’ve lost both of their games against power five conference teams, as they fell to Clemson 81-70 and Miami 58-54. Before the season started, I picked the Boilers’ to finish 10th in the conference.
The main reason I wasn’t very high on Purdue is their lack of a second scoring option behind human wrecking ball Trevion Williams (13.3 PTS, 10.3 REB, 2.2 AST). In the preview article, I emphasized that the Boilermakers don’t have many legitimate offensive threats returning who could support Williams, but that their freshman class intrigued me. Somehow I overlooked the most talented piece of that whole class — 7-foot-4, three-star Canadian center Zach Edey.
Edey, who was the No. 432 overall recruit and just the 74th-ranked center, has vastly outperformed expectations, and is giving opposing defenses fits, especially when playing alongside Williams. Through four games, Edey is averaging 13.3 points per game to go along with 4.3 rebounds. He is shooting 75% from the floor (!!), but is also averaging 3.5 personal fouls per game in just 15.5 minutes per contest.
To translate: when Zach Edey is on the floor, he is dominant. There hasn’t been a single team who has shown the ability to neutralize the tallest Canadian 18-year old I’ve ever seen. Scoring on 75% of your shot attempts is unheard of, but that’s what happens when your head is basically level with the basket. The Buckeyes are going to have a hell of a tough time defending Williams and Edey together, especially if both Towns and Liddell are both out (which looks like the case).
The silver lining? Edey is still learning how to play defense in college without fouling. While his minutes have been increasing as the season goes on (he played a season-high 21 minutes in Purdue’s loss to Clemson), he is averaging almost four fouls per game in under 20 minutes. This is keeping his butt nailed to the bench for the majority of each game.
If Chris Holtmann is smart (and I think he is), he should draw up plays early to attack Edey, forcing his hand and potentially getting him in foul trouble. The Canadian skyscraper may swat a few shots, but he also should pick up some early fouls, relegating him to the bench and therefore evening out the size advantage for the Buckeyes.
It’s going to take a herculean effort from guys like Kyle Young, Zed Key, and even Ibrahima Diallo to limit Purdue’s damage in the paint. Do you recall Ohio State’s trip to Purdue in 2018? 6-foot-6 Andre Wesson managed to hold 7-foot-2 Isaac Haas to just two points in the second half of that game to help stave off the No. 3 Boilermakers. That’s the type of effort the Buckeyes will need Wednesday night.
But fear not! Even without Liddell, Ohio State still has three players averaging over 13 points per game (Duane Washington Jr., Justice Sueing, and CJ Walker). While they’re at a disadvantage down low, the Buckeyes have a more talented backcourt that is capable of carrying the offense if needed.
On top of that, Zed Key is coming off his first career double-double (12 PTS, 10 REB in 21 minutes) and Justin Ahrens has hit six of his last nine three-point attempts (nice). Ahrens is averaging nine points per game over his last two contests. Ohio State has the weapons to weather the storm, especially with that type of production coming off the bench.
When the Buckeyes beat Notre Dame, the offense didn’t start clicking until 6-foot-11 center Juwan Durham fouled out of the game for the Irish. Once they got on a more level playing field (size-wise), the offense opened up, and Ohio State was able to come back and steal a victory away from the Irish.
Zach Edey is Purdue’s Durham. If Ohio State goes at the freshman early and gets him in foul trouble, he’ll be pulled back to the bench and won’t be able to impact the game like Matt Painter hopes he will. When both he and Williams are on the court together, it’s going to be tough sledding getting to the rack.
I don’t think this game is going to be smooth or visually appealing on either end, but it is shaping up to be a classic boxing match between two talented teams and brilliant coaches. At full strength (Towns and Liddell included), I think Ohio State is the superior squad. But if neither suit up, this game is a toss up.
ESPN BPI: Ohio State 51.2%
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