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E.J. Liddell’s return gives Ohio State a rare chance at redemption

The rising junior returns to a loaded roster and a program starving for postseason success.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Oral Roberts at Ohio State Joshua Bickel-USA TODAY Sports

The Ohio State University men’s basketball program hasn’t had the best luck with star players returning over the past decade or so. While you can’t fault an amateur athlete for choosing to split when the option is there to play for money, many “fringe” NBA guys do end up returning to school if the odds of them being drafted don’t look too great. But not at Ohio State (at least not recently)! Over the past several years, Buckeye basketball teams have struggled to build on the prior year’s success after losing considerable talent from that year’s team.

Very few of these players have been All-Americans where it was a no-brainer to leave. Most, like Kaleb Wesson and Trevor Thompson, were solid, productive Big Ten basketball players who would have continued to improve with additional years in school. But when there’s an amount money being dangled in front of you that you never fathomed you’d possess, can you blame them?

Since 2013, Ohio State has had five players declare for the NBA Draft before using up all of their eligibility:

  • LaQuinton Ross
  • D’Angelo Russell
  • Trevor Thompson
  • Keita Bates-Diop
  • Kaleb Wesson

Ohio State is not a national powerhouse, and does not recruit at the same level as Duke, Michigan State, Kansas, Kentucky, and so on. The Buckeyes are not pulling five-stars most years, and generally recruit more three and four-star players who will play out the entirety of their collegiate eligibility. Of the five players listed above, only Russell (the second overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft) was a five-star recruit. And of the five players listed above, only Russell and Bates-Diop (48th pick in the 2018 NBA Draft) were actually drafted after they left early.

E.J. Liddell made massive strides at Ohio State last season, increasing his scoring output by over 10 points per game while also improving in virtually every other stat imaginable. In March, after Ohio State was upset by 15-seed Oral Roberts in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament, Liddell announced that he would go through the NBA Draft process. Not to be found on either ESPN or The Athletic’s top 100 prospects, Liddell’s odds of being taken with one of the 60 draft selections on July 29 were extremely low. But as we’ve seen, there are more ways to make money playing basketball than just the National Basketball Association.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Oral Roberts at Ohio State Joshua Bickel-USA TODAY Sports

Both Liddell and his now-former teammate Duane Washington Jr. had until July 7 to make up their minds on the draft. Washington Jr. decided first, announcing on June 29 that he would forgo his senior year at Ohio State and remain in the draft. As the draft process unfolded and Washington’s stock continued to rise, this outcome appeared more and more inevitable. Then, after a strong showing at the NBA G-League’s Elite Camp, Washington Jr. was invited to participate in the NBA Draft Combine, where he also performed very well.

The feisty, sharpshooting guard that was once an NBA afterthought has put coaches and executives on notice. His decision to stay in the draft while his stock was high made sense. Remaining at Ohio State for another year likely would not have made him more desirable to pro teams, especially in an age where younger players hold more draft value simply because they are just that — younger.

Liddell’s case was quite different. He did not perform well at the G-League camp, and was not invited to the NBA Combine. His current skillset doesn’t translate too well to the NBA, either. He’s not big enough to be considered a center, but also isn’t a consistent enough shooter to rely on his jumper... yet. He is also a year younger than Washington, so an extra year in school wouldn’t be as much as of an indictment on him as it would've been for his teammate. With all that considered, Liddell announced over the weekend that he would, in fact, be coming back to Ohio State.

He captioned the below photo on Instagram with three words:

“Job’s not finished.”

Now that Liddell is back in the Buckeye fold for this season, he’ll have an opportunity for redemption, both on a personal and team level. His Buckeye squad became just the ninth team ever to lose to a 15-seed in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament, when they were soundly outplayed by Mouth Bob this past March.

Of the other eight teams who were ousted in the first round by a 15-seed, only two of them — 1994 Arizona and 2013 Duke— were able to make it to the Sweet Sixteen the next season. The other seven won a max of one game, or didn’t make the tournament at all. The 1998 South Carolina Gamecocks were actually upset again — as a 3-seed — the year after being upset as a 2-seed. So, it is safe to say that history is not on Ohio State’s side.

The Buckeyes are also fighting for postseason success after nearly a decade of lackluster showings in the tournament. Ohio State — one of the more prestigious basketball programs in the Big Ten — has not made it to a Sweet Sixteen in nine years. It has been nine long, agonizing years for a team and fanbase simply waiting for two wins in the same NCAA Tournament. So, while this specific OSU team has a pretty obvious motivation for the upcoming season, the program itself will also begin to feel the heat from its own fans if the Buckeyes don’t have a successful tournament run sooner or later.

And for Liddell — on a personal level — this season is a chance for him to not only make things right after last year’s disappointment, but to improve his game in ways that make him a better “fit” for NBA teams next year. He shot 34% from three-point range last season, but as a non-traditional center, that number will need to improve. Liddell also needs to work on his passing, as we saw in the loss to Oral Roberts. As the second half of that game wore on, and the Buckeyes’ game plan became apparent, the Eagles tightened their jaws on Liddell in the paint, making it next to impossible for him to kick the ball back out. His own coaches saw it happen, Big Ten coaches saw it happen, and America saw it happen — all on national television.

For himself, for his current team, and for the Ohio State basketball program, Liddell’s return means an opportunity to take care of some unfinished business and answer the question so many fans have been asking — will Chris Holtmann’s Buckeyes ever make a run in the tournament?