Ohio State's Chris Holtmann updates E.J. Liddell's status and more on radio show

Adam Jardy
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State Buckeyes head coach Chris Holtmann kneels on the court during the second half of Sunday's NCAA Division I basketball game against the Cleveland State Vikings at Value City Arena in Columbus, Oh. on December 13, 2020. Ohio State won the game 67-61.

One day after a 67-61 win against Cleveland State, Ohio State men’s basketball coach Chris Holtmann held his weekly radio show. The Buckeyes, at 5-0, will go to Purdue on Wednesday to open Big Ten play and then face North Carolina in Cleveland on Saturday as part of the CBS Sports Classic.

If you couldn’t listen to the show, here are the highlights.

More:Ohio State notebook: Zed Key impresses, Meechie Johnson Jr. arrives and more

*Sophomore forward E.J. Liddell remains day-to-day while recovering from an illness The Dispatch has confirmed is mononucleosis.

“He’s very much day-to-day right now,” Holtmann said. “Making progress. Getting some energy back, but being evaluated day-to-day and he’ll continue to be day-to-day.”

His presence was missed in the win against the Vikings, a team that played multiple defenses including a zone. Tuesday at Notre Dame, Liddell scored 19 points and has proven himself adept at attacking the middle of zone defenses.

“E.J. Liddell, he’s the best guy I’ve coached in the middle of a zone,” Holtmann said. “He is elite at that, so when you pull him out of a lineup it does affect your ability to attack zones. The other thing is, he can drive into a body and pop up and finish with his length, his 6-11 length, with great touch around the rim. It’s a skill-set that’s really hard to find. I think Justice Sueing can be good at it and we can get him better at it, but EJ is elite.”

Holtmann did not rule Liddell out against the Boilermakers, however.

“If E.J. is out, it’ll be a significant challenge in the interior and we’ll have to do it as a group,” he said.

*Freshman Zed Key responded with 12 points and 10 rebounds with Liddell out.

“I thought Zed was terrific,” Holtmann said. “Granted, the competition wasn’t near what we’re going to face moving forward, but coming off a game against Notre Dame that was hard to play him because of matchups, man, Zed had a real impact on both ends. Blocked shots, great energy chased loose balls, just was a real factor for us.”

*Holtmann said the Buckeyes have contemplated some zone defense without Liddell.

“Well, it’s something we’ve thought about here,” he said. “It’s a valid question. I’d like for us to continue to grow and develop our man-to-man principles. We do change up a lot of our coverages. It may not be a zone, but we do change up how we’re guarding ball screens and different actions.”

*When Liddell is back, and when Harvard graduate transfer Seth Towns is healthy and available, what will this Ohio State team look like?

“We’ve got to figure out what our rotation’s going to look like when everybody’s back,” Holtmann said. “When we were playing our best basketball last year, we really had a rotation of 8-9 for the final two months of the season. That allowed guys to play a little bit free, which I think helped our team. I think we’ll have to get to that and maybe a 10th guy on occasion. I think it’s going to be a little bit of a moving target.”

*Holtmann cited a player like Jimmy Sotos as having been ready to step up whenever he’s been called upon in a limited role.

“Right now obviously this year more than ever, you need everybody,” Holtmann said. “It’s been unique because fortunately we’ve not really been beset by COVID as a program. We have dealt with more injuries here in the early going than certainly in any of our time here. That’s been an adjustment that we’ve got to continue to make.”

*Junior Justin Ahrens earned the start in place of Liddell and hit two second-half three pointers while 23 minutes. Cleveland State was particularly devoted to running him off the line and limiting his shooting opportunities.

“That’s the reputation he’s created in his two-plus years here,” Holtmann said. “He’s just been really, really efficient. I thought he was appropriately aggressive. He took one that wasn’t a great one, but I thought he really stayed aggressive in the second half. Now he’s got to use that aggressiveness that teams bring against them. We’ve really encouraged him to take that side-step three. It’s a skill you’ve got to work on, but he’s really gotten good at it.”

Holtmann said the Buckeyes have used Ahrens as a shooting guard at times this season and that he continues to work on his defensive capabilities because teams are targeting him at that end of the court.

*Another player working his way back from injury, Musa Jallow played 24 minutes off the bench against the Vikings as he recovers from ankle surgery that forced him to take a medical redshirt last season.

“He’s a little bit like Kyle (Young) in terms of you’re trying to keep tabs on how he’s feeling,” Holtmann said. “Kyle, we know his lower legs and trying to monitor stress reactions and make sure he doesn’t go down that road. Musa, he had some swelling in his Achilles and some of that was the jumping he was doing in warmups. Really, you’re trying to monitor him.

“My practice plan has to be pretty fluid right now because of who can practice and who can’t and who’s in and who’s out. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. Some of that is the expectation with COVID, but it’s really not been COVID-related to this point.”

*Holtmann took a question asking when fans will be permitted to attend games.

“I’m optimistic that we’ll be able to see that sooner rather than later,” he said. “Does that mean January? I’ve not been given a specific timeline. I do know they’re going to look at ways to get parents and fans as soon as they feel it’s safest to do that. I’m hopeful.”

Parents were allowed to attend the game at Notre Dame, and Holtmann said the coaches gave the players extra time to hang out with their families afterward.

“They haven’t seen them in months,” he said. “Understandably so, but man, as a coach you’re just, the human element of this right now, I’ve not seen my parents in a while but I do get to see my wife and daughter. That pulls on you as a coach.”

*Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski has canceled his team’s final non-conference game and questioned why college basketball continues to be played in the midst of the pandemic. Holtmann was asked for his thoughts on the situation.

“I took (his comments) for what they were, which was his personal feelings regarding his team and the feelings of his guys,” Holtmann said. “Obviously no one has a better pulse for his team than the head coach. I totally respect that. I think that’s probably some of the feelings that a number of programs or coaches are feeling right now. It’s a challenge for everybody but I do think our guys are very fortunate and grateful. As a coach it weighs on you because we haven’t always played as well as we wanted to play, but to get in five games right now under very difficult conditions is a great credit to our players, a great credit to our medical staff.

“They want to keep playing. I think they’re anxious to get into the best basketball league in the country and figure out where we stand here.”

*Another submitted question asked if Holtmann would consider playing Ohio University and coach Jeff Boals, a former Ohio State assistant, in a home-and-home series.

“We’re always looking at potential in-state opponents for sure,” he said. “That’s a really quality program. Jeff’s doing a great job. I’ve got fond memories from the job John Groce and his staff did there. It’s a great mid-major job. We’ll look at a lot of opponents in-state. We want to continue to play a few every year.”

*Saturday’s game against North Carolina was moved from a 2 p.m. start to roughly 4:15 and the second slot of the CBS Sports Classic doubleheader in order to accommodate Ohio State fans. The football team will play in the Big Ten title game at noon, and Holtmann was asked how amenable North Carolina, Kentucky and UCLA were to moving the game times.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I’m guessing that they were amenable to flipping the times. They probably didn’t have a whole lot of conversation about it. They probably realized it was best for TV, for ratings. We knew that might happen once fortunately the Big Ten changed the rule and allowed our football team to go and do what they’ve earned, which is a chance to go to the championship game.”

The game will be played in Cleveland without fans.

“They were looking at different venues they felt like would be safe,” Holtmann said. “Vegas was last year and what a great location that was and great event. Atlanta was one. Indianapolis was one. Ultimately I think Cleveland’s availability was the best. I think there would’ve been some argument had fans been allowed.”