Already mixing and matching, Ohio State basketball now must adapt without E.J. Liddell
Four games into the season, Ohio State men's basketball coach Chris Holtmann has mixed and matched lineups like never before.
Still, the shuffling is about to pick up significantly. Friday evening, the Buckeyes announced that leading scorer and rebounder E.J. Liddell is out indefinitely with a non-COVID-19 illness. Multiple sources have since indicated to The Dispatch that Liddell is suffering from mononucleosis.
As No. 22-ranked Ohio State prepares to host Cleveland State at Value City Arena on Sunday, a team that was already a work in progress is losing an integral part of its rotation.
“He’s a sophomore and he’s one of our best players,” Holtmann said of Liddell after Tuesday’s 90-85 win at Notre Dame. “He’s a terrific player. As a sophomore, he’s got to be a consistent player for us if we’re going to be good.”
In the win, the Buckeyes used 15 lineup combinations. Thirteen of them had not been used during the first three games, continuing a trend that has seen Holtmann use more lineup combinations than in either of his first three seasons at Ohio State through four games.
In addition to his production, Liddell is third on the team in minutes played and has been part of 32 of the 62 lineups consisting entirely of scholarship players. Against the Irish, the Buckeyes played the final 15:03 of the game with brand-new lineups while outscoring Notre Dame 46-32.
Junior guard/forward Musa Jallow was a big part of the reason why. His defensive versatility helped Ohio State switch on more ball screens and defend against a Notre Dame team with a significant size advantage, something that figures to be an issue for the Buckeyes as the season progresses.
Listed at 6 feet 5, Jallow said he initially entered the game at power forward but guarded everyone from Notre Dame’s guards to 6-10 center Nate Laszewski. It’s the kind of flexibility the Buckeyes will need to continue to develop while Liddell is out.
“Before the game Holt was like, ‘I’m not really sure what position you’re going to be playing today, but just be ready to do it all,’ ” Jallow told The Dispatch. “It’s fun basketball and I feel like that’s where it’s headed anyway. We’re ahead of the game.”
It is unknown when Liddell will return. It’s possible that the sophomore is roughly already at the midpoint of the disease, which could put him on a quicker timeline to a full return. During the game at Notre Dame, Holtmann challenged Liddell at halftime to do more and play harder, and he responded by scoring 17 second-half points to spark the comeback victory.
Ohio State has only three lineups without Liddell that have logged more than five minutes of playing time this season. The most-used – consisting of CJ Walker and Duane Washington at guard, Justice Sueing and Kyle Young at forward and Zed Key at center – has logged 5:43 together but did not see any action against Notre Dame.
That is one option for the Buckeyes. A potential debut for Seth Towns, who has not played after missing the past two seasons while at Harvard, could possibly help fill the void. He has been listed as “game-to-game, week-to-week” by Holtmann, who has cautioned against expecting too much too soon from the Northland graduate.
Liddell's absence could also mean a starting job for junior Justin Ahrens, which would slide Sueing to power forward and Young to center.
Either way, it’s going to force Holtmann to adapt – just as this team has done through the first four games.