Ohio State’s E.J. Liddell is a very good player having a very strong season. I don’t think that anyone who has paid attention to college basketball this year doubts that he is one of the best players in a very tough Big Ten Conference, but I’m here to tell you that even if the sophomore from Belleville, Ill. isn’t yet a superstar, he is very much on his way to becoming one. And even more so, that he is the perfect player to be the first superstar of Chris Holtmann’s Ohio State tenure.
Now, I say all of this meaning no disrespect to Keita Bates-Diop, who obviously had a phenomenal 2017-18 season winning the Big Ten Player of the Year Award following Holtmann’s first season in Columbus. But KBD was a Thad Matta guy. He was a part of one of Thad’s best recruiting classes in 2014 which also featured D’Angelo Russell and Jae’Sean Tate, and he played three of his four collegiate seasons under Matta.
Yes, he had his breakout campaign with Holtmann at the helm, but I still think of him as a Matta guy who stuck around to ease the transition into the new era. And besides, I think that Liddell is setting himself up to have an even better year in 2021-22 than even KBD did in 2017-18.
So far in this weird season, Liddell leads the Buckeyes with 14.9 points and 6.8 rebounds per game (just 4.9 and 1.9 behind what KBD did in his senior season). E.J.’s numbers are solid, but not super flashy; in fact, neither ranks in the top-10 of the B1G this season — although they do both slot in at No. 11 in their respective categories (E.J. is also 10th in the league with 1.3 blocks per outing).
But what makes his contributions so important for the No. 4 ranked team in the country is that he can be the team’s leader even without having to be the team’s leading scorer. In Monday’s 73-65 victory over Maryland, Liddell did not score in the first half, and didn’t connect on field goal attempt until there was just 7:01 left in the game. He finished with seven points and six rebounds, and — most importantly — his team came away with their 16th win of the season.
That exemplifies the way that Holtmann’s teams have played in his four seasons at OSU. They are unselfish squads that grind and do the little things right, and while they might get out a little too far over their skis at times, they play solid, sturdy, team basketball.
So, it’s no surprise that when Liddell was on the Jim Rome Show on Thursday, just shortly after being named to the Midseason Naismith Trophy Watchlist (more on that in a second), he deflected Van Smack’s compliments, preferring to hype up his teammates.
Now, as for that midseason Naismith list; (SPOILER ALERT) Liddell isn’t going to win this year, but that’s ok, because from where I stand, when you put 30 guys on a list with a month left in the season, you aren’t looking to narrow down your list, you’re simply looking to recognize outstanding performances as the season winds down. And what Liddell has done this season — in this conference — deserves to be celebrated.
There are 30 guys on this list, and eight of them are from the B1G. That means, that three of these players — who are all considered amongst the very best in the country — will be, at best, second-team all-conference (and no, I’m not getting into the coaches and media potentially splitting votes, you know what I’m getting at here). Despite how stacked the conference is, Liddell has absolutely earned this honor, even if he is one of the four B1G underclassmen to show up on this list.
And, unless E.J. decides to go pro after this season — forgoing his final two years as a Buckeye — he should be one of the favorites for both the national and conference POY awards heading into next year; and that’s where things get exciting. The 6-foot-7 forward capitalized on a strong finish to the pandemic-shortened season in 2020 to become one of the best players in the country in 2021. So, what will he be able to do when he has a legitimate offseason, with a structured strength and conditioning program in place, the ability to be in the gym with his teammates, the chance to get the most out of April through October? We’ll see, but I think it will be a whole hell of a lot.
E.J. Liddell is a prototypical Chris Holtmann player. He is a tough, scrappy guy who has height, but isn’t defined by it. He can play the post, but is continuing to expand his shooting range. He is an effort defender who does the little things in order to make the guy he’s guarding have an absolutely miserable time trying to score. He is a team-player, who understands his role, whether he is having a good night, or a bad.
E.J. Liddell is a prototypical Chris Holtmann player, and if he continues to progress like I believe that he will, come 2022, we will be talking about E.J. Liddell being Chris Holtmann’s first superstar.