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Ohio State’s 71-63 win over Illinois shows E.J. Liddell is ready to take over

The freshman forward had a career night in a huge win against his home state team.

NCAA Basketball: Ohio State at Indiana Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Over the last few decades, Senior Nights in big time college basketball have become a celebration of a team’s glue guys and overachievers far more than the final games for a program’s best players. For this season’s No. 19 Ohio State Buckeyes (21-9, 11-8), there is only one scholarship senior on the roster in Andre Wesson, and he was joined in Thursday night’s ceremonies at the Value City Arena by Air Force transfer Danny Hummer; who got the start and the first bucket of the game.

However, what the Buckeyes’ 71-63 win over the No. 23 Illinois Fighting Illini (20-10, 12-7) showed was not how their seniors will be missed in 2020-21, but rather who could step up to carry the mantle should Andre and his younger brother Kaleb Wesson depart following the season.

Now, we are still a ways away from Kaleb officially deciding if he will return for his senior year or depart for the NBA Draft, but in picking up two fouls in the first 3:27 of the game, the younger Wesson brother gave us a glimpse of what the future might hold for OSU.

With freshmen D.J. Carton and Alonzo Gaffney unavailable for Chris Holtmann’s squad, another young player picked up the slack with Kaleb on the bench for nine of the game’s first 20 minutes and helped the home team erase an early 11 point deficit a secure a monumentally important win in their quest to move up a seeding line in the NCAA Tournament.

The young contributor was the third of OSU’s highly-touted rookies, E.J. Liddell. The Illinois native and two-time Mr. Basketball in his home state has played a more important role in recent weeks — especially with junior forward Kyle Young out with an ankle injury — but against the Illini, he led all scorers with nine points in the first half, on 4-of-5 shooting, keeping the Buckeyes in contention after falling behind by double-digits in the first half.

He finished the game with 17 points and 11 rebounds, marking his first career double-double, tying his career-high in points and setting a new high mark in rebounds.

A third foul from Kaleb Wesson with 13:19 left in regulation brought Liddell back on the floor with his team down 47-40. The freshman played alongside the younger Wesson in the front court as the Buckeyes retook the lead at 53-51 on an emphatic put-back slam from Liddell. They would not relinquish the lead from there.

Kaleb Wesson fouled out with 1:49 left in the game, leaving Liddell as the only big man on the floor for the Buckeyes, and he looked calm and in control as the home team staved off a furious, late comeback effort by Illinois.

As he has gotten more and more comfortable on the floor, Liddell has become more engaged in what was happening around him. Early in the season, especially against the top competition, Liddell seemed like he was not yet ready to go up against the size and strength of a collegiate front court. However, against his home state team on Thursday night, Liddell showed a new level of confidence and command of OSU’s schemes on both sides of the floor that we haven’t seen from him before as a collegiate player.

While the freshman does not have the well-rounded game that Kaleb does, nor the energy and tenacity of Young, what Liddell has shown in the past few weeks — and especially against the Illini — is that he is a more than competent Big Ten defender (as evidenced by his explosive block on an Alan Griffin jumper in the late stages of the game), and that he has a whole host of ways to score, from the powerful slams to an impressive mid-range game.

In the early season, Liddell was an almost forgotten member of the OSU freshman class and on-court rotation. However, the development that he has shown in the latter third of the campaign is a testament to his work ethic and the coaching staff’s ability to develop players.

With one regular season game remaining for the Buckeyes, and the status of Young, Gaffney, and Carton uncertain, Liddell is playing himself into being a cornerstone for the program not only for years to come, but for this postseason as well.