The highest-rated recruiting class of Chris Holtmann’s coaching career arrived on Ohio State’s campus in June. All four members of the class of 2019 have been on campus for a few weeks, going through summer workouts and conditioning to prepare for their upcoming freshman seasons.
Before DJ Carton, Ibrahima Diallo, Alonzo Gaffney and E.J. Liddell all arrived on campus, The Dispatch caught up with each of them and their coaches for exclusive interviews to review their senior seasons and their hopes to contribute as freshmen. This four-part series will continue through the rest of the week with a new story each day both in print and online at BuckeyeXtra.com. The class is ranked No. 13 nationally and tops in the Big Ten, twice as high as runner-up Michigan State at No. 26.
The series concludes with Liddell.
Belleville (Ill.) West
247Sports composite rankings: No. 1 in Illinois, No. 8 at his position, No. 42 nationally. Four stars.
As a senior: Averaged 20.2 points, 9.3 rebounds and 3.8 blocks while shooting 62.3 percent (274 for 440) from the field
Ohio State jersey number: 32
What is there to do when you’ve done it all? Liddell and his Belleville West teammates faced that situation when they opened last season. For Liddell, there was the Illinois Mr. Basketball honor he had won as a junior, and for the Maroons, defending a state championship.
“I wanted to win everything I won last year, plus more,” Liddell said. “I wanted to be an All-American, get one of those nominations. Basically, I was just looking forward to winning another state championship because it was such a big deal last year. It was pretty cool how everybody in the state and the city knew us. I just wanted to show why we were one of the best teams in the state again.”
Getting there would take growth in a few areas. Belleville West coach Joe Muniz planned to expand Liddell’s role, asking him to become even more of a distributor in addition to the team’s go-to player.Join the conversation at Facebook.com/BuckeyeXtra and connect with us on Twitter @BuckeyeXtra
“My goal for him was I wanted him to enjoy his senior season, but don’t be satisfied with what you’ve already accomplished,” he said. “Try to do more. Obviously, I had other goals as far as I wanted him to be more versatile, I wanted him to be able to handle the ball more, play away from the basket more and he did that very well. Everything we did centered around him.”
It would be a challenge, but Liddell didn’t view it as pressure.
“None,” he said. “I just have fun playing basketball. It was no pressure whatsoever. I had fun playing basketball. It’s what I do.”
As expected, the double teams from opposing defenses came. In perhaps the biggest win of the season save for the state title game, though, Liddell made them pay. Against powerhouse Chicago Simeon, the Maroons trailed by two points in overtime and called timeout to set up their final possession.
Liddell, hobbled with a foot injury suffered during the first quarter, was given a set of instructions by Muniz.
“I told E.J., we’re going to get you the ball and whatever decision you make it’s going to be the right decision,” the coach said. “If you want to shoot it, shoot it. If you don’t, this guy’s going to be open because you’re going to get double-teamed.”
So when Liddell caught the ball on the block, he felt the approaching double team and the chance to take a tough shot to be the hero. Instead, he recalled what Muniz had said.
“I knew (Coach) meant I was going to get double-teamed, because everybody thinks the best player on the team is going to shoot the ball, but I trust my teammate that he was going to make that shot,” Liddell said. “I saw him wide-open and he knocked it down.”
“Most kids are going to shoot that shot because they want the glory,” Muniz said. “He turns and passes to make the right basketball play and trust his teammates and we win the game because the kid gets a wide-open three. That’s why E.J. is a two-time state champion.”
As a senior, his improved ball-handling skills played a large role, too. After losing point guard Malachi Smith, who played for Wright State last season, Muniz realized he might need some help in the backcourt and decided to ask Liddell to handle some of those responsibilities.
He did, and it became a major talking point come tournament time. During the postseason, Liddell led West in assists.
“E.J.’s a great scorer,” Muniz said. “He’s a great shot-blocker, but his overall passing game is phenomenal. Like I told him a couple of times, unfortunately he couldn’t pass to himself. There were times we struggled getting him the ball in a position to score.”
After the Simeon win, Liddell showed off another side of his personality.
“Obviously, I want them to remember me about basketball, but I also want them to remember me as the person that I am,” he said. “I love taking pictures with the kids after the game. I’ll stay as long as I have to (in order) to take pictures with all the kids. After the Simeon game, there were a whole bunch of kids around me and my coaches wanted me to come to the locker room but I was like, ‘All right, one more, one more.’ I was trying to get everybody before they left. That’s just me as a person, because I was one of those kids looking up to (St. Louis native) Jayson Tatum.”
Liddell became only the second player to be named Illinois Mr. Basketball twice. The other: Jabari Parker, the former Duke standout who won it in 2013 and 14 and now plays in the NBA for the Washington Wizards. Liddell finished the season with 15 double-doubles and had 24 points and 10 rebounds in the state title game.
His season-high scoring effort was 42 points on Nov. 30 against Madisonville (Kentucky) North Hopkins. In the same game, he also tied a season high with 16 rebounds.
For his career, Liddell is West’s all-time leader in points (2,508), rebounds (1,004) and blocks (500) and is third in assists (322). He outscored the runner-up in school history by more than 500 points.
How did he get there? Mostly hard work borne out of a hatred for losing, be it at Monopoly, Uno or basketball.
“My mom always told me I was a sore loser (as a kid),” he said. “If we were playing Uno and I’d lose, I wouldn’t stop until I’d win. I’m just a very competitive guy. It’s not like this is a thing that has recently happened. My whole life I’ve been competitive and just wanted to win.”
Most meaningful, however, were the back-to-back titles. Belleville is less than 20 miles from St. Louis, Missouri, and a full 300 miles from Chicago. The stereotype for Illinois basketball is that the really talented players come from the big city, not the opposite end of the state.
Liddell and his teammates did their best to change that.
“People ask me which was better, the first one or the second one,” Liddell said. “I’d probably say the second one, because we finished our legacy. We did everything we could do in our legacy as a unit and we left our mark on the state of Illinois and people are going to talk about us from now on, with (guys like) Jabari Parker and Shawn Livingston. It feels great to leave our mark.”
Muniz said Liddell’s location and unselfishness likely kept him from one of his personal goals: being named a McDonald’s All-American.
“I don’t think people realized how good E.J. was until we got to the state tournament and he dominated the state tournament,” he said. “Then the people from Chicago realized that. The thing that makes it even more impressive, because it bothered me that he wasn’t a McDonald’s All-American. The only reason he wasn’t top 20 in the country is because he was down in the St. Louis area. The hype train in Chicago wasn’t as much for him.”
During high school, Liddell was involved in a mentoring program helping younger classmates deal with issues they might struggle discussing with their parents. It’s an endeavor he hopes to continue at Ohio State.
This fall, Muniz said he sees Liddell being able to contribute in multiple ways — provided he can make improvements in his lateral quickness and his outside jumper.
“I think going through how (the Buckeyes) use their versatile forwards and how they used Keita Bates-Diop and Jae’Sean Tate, you hope E.J. can evolve into that type of player because I think he’s got that type of skill,” Muniz said. “I think there’s a point in time where you’re ready for that next level and I think he’s ready for that. He’s done everything he possibly can. To get his game to grow, he needs to be going up against athletes like himself night in and night out every day to get him to be the best that he can possibly be.”
Whatever role that might entail, Liddell said he’s ready.
“I see myself playing the 3, 4 or 5 when they really need me to because I will guard anybody on the court,” he said. “I could guard a point guard if you put me on him; just let me know when and where I’ve got to guard him. That’s just me. I will do anything it takes to win. If they throw me out there and tell me I need to score, I will do that. If they tell me I need to go out and facilitate, I will do that. Coach (Chris) Holtmann is saying he’s looking at me a lot of different ways.”