E.J. Liddell ready to step into bigger role for Ohio State men's basketball
They were big. They were physical. They were mean. And for the first time in his short Ohio State career, they were E.J. Liddell’s responsibility.
The Buckeyes were playing at Penn State on Jan. 18 last season, a game the Nittany Lions and their bruising frontcourt handled mostly from tip to final whistle in what would be a 14-point loss for Ohio State.
It was the 18th game of Liddell’s career, and while he had played significant minutes against other teams, his 20-minute effort against Penn State taught him a few lessons.
“I’m like, ‘This is pretty hard,’ ” Liddell told The Dispatch. “For the rest of the season I started to catch on that playing high minutes takes a lot of going into practice and conditioning after practice.”
It was a lesson Liddell took to heart as his freshman season came to a close, and one that Ohio State is hoping helps translate into a breakout year for the 6-foot-7, 240-pound forward. The Buckeyes will enter the season without a proven, traditional big-bodied center on the roster after Kaleb Wesson departed for a professional career following his junior year.
He averaged 6.7 points and 3.8 rebounds per game as a freshman. He also blocked 29 shots. That amounted to 6.6% of all two-point field goals attempted while he was on the court, which was the best mark on the team and No. 81 nationally according to KenPom.com.
Now the offense will start to flow more directly through his hands as Liddell is asked to expand his game to the three-point line, an area where the Buckeyes are especially going to miss Wesson’s versatility.
“I feel like the ball is going to be in my hands a lot more,” Liddell said. “I feel like a lot of the offense is going to flow through me some more than it did last year, but It’s not so much just back-to-the-basket and shooting layups.”
Liddell closed his freshman season with a flourish. His first career double-double came in a senior day win against Illinois, the home-state team that he spurned to sign with the Buckeyes after being named a two-time Mr. Basketball while winning consecutive state titles at Belleville West. He followed that with 12 points in a road loss to Michigan State in the final game of the season, marking his only consecutive double-digit scoring games.
Although he showed a nice shooting touch from the elbow extended, Liddell was only 5 for 26 (19.2%) from three last year. Expecting him to suddenly match Wesson’s team-leading three-point mark (42.5%) from a season ago is a stretch, and coach Chris Holtmann cautioned against expecting too much too soon.
“There’s no question he’s got to take a real important step for us,” Holtmann said. “I think to expect a sophomore to be someone you’re going to run 100% of your offense through in the best league in the country is probably too much to put on him right now.”
The key to it all, like for many big men, is whether Liddell is capable of logging significant minutes in a physical conference such as the Big Ten. So while he focused on developing his skills during the offseason, Liddell said he paid special attention to his conditioning as well.
“I feel like you definitely need a season under you to have an understanding,” he said. “The freshmen we have now, they talk and they have a little bit of energy some days, but you have to bring it every single day. And I feel like I figured that out towards the end of last year. I started practicing way harder and just worrying about today and then letting tomorrow come.”
How big of a step he takes could tie in directly with his right hook: like Wesson last season, Liddell said he’s added boxing workouts with strength and conditioning coach Quadrian Banks to his post-practice conditioning routine.
“I would say my right hook is vicious,” he said with a laugh.