Ohio State's E.J. Liddell full-steam ahead for Big Ten play after playing through illness

Adam Jardy
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State's E.J. Liddell (32) passes over UCLA's Jalen Hill (24) in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020, in Cleveland. Ohio State won 77-70. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

E.J. Liddell is a man who likes his naps. So when the Ohio State sophomore forward fell asleep on the bus following a win at Notre Dame on December 8, and then again once on the plane ride home, it wasn’t a major cause for concern.

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But when he was too tired to fight his way through the first few practice drills the following day, what had been a general feeling of fatigue finally merited a blood test. The eventual diagnosis of mononucleosis would both keep him out of the lineup for the next two games and explain why he’d been feeling so tired dating back to around the November 25 start of the season.

It also shed new light onto his performance in the win against the Fighting Irish, a game where Liddell scored 17 of his career-high 19 points after a halftime during which coach Chris Holtmann challenged him to play with more energy and physicality.

“I guess my second wind came in (that game) or something,” Liddell told The Dispatch. “I don’t know what came upon me. You’ve got to fight through things sometimes for the team, I guess.”

Doing that has limits, though. Although he would be in the bench area for both games, Liddell would sit out a physical win against Cleveland State five days later and a December 16 road loss to Purdue while resting and recovering his strength. The Boilermakers would shoot 57.6% (19 for 33) from two-point range while junior forward/center Trevion Williams nearly posted a triple-double at 16 points, nine rebounds and a career-high eight assists.

Liddell might not have made the difference in the game, but he would have likely made a difference. As a freshman, Liddell played 11 minutes and had one point, two turnovers and no rebounds in Ohio State’s lone game against the Boilermakers.

“I would’ve loved to see (that this year),” coach Chris Holtmann said. “Last year when we played Purdue, they trapped him and he struggled with it a little bit and he struggled a little bit at time with how physical the game was. I think sophomore-year E.J. would’ve handled that really well. I really believe that.”

The good news about the diagnosis was that he was already several weeks in, meaning his return to action wasn’t that far off. Once Liddell practiced last Friday, he cleared to participate in Saturday’s game against UCLA in Cleveland as part of the CBS Sports Classic.

“I had to tell myself to calm down,” he said of his emotions Friday night. “It was like I was playing my first game back freshman year again, just how excited I was to be back on the court.”

He returned to the starting lineup, won the opening tip and hit a three-pointer on the game’s first possession but battled foul trouble and finished with nine points and three rebounds in 19 minutes. He picked up his fifth foul with 7:21 to play and watched the Buckeyes pull away for a 77-70 win.

“I don’t know if I was too aggressive against UCLA or it was just the officiating, but I was happy to be back out there,” he said. “There was one point in the game where I had to ask coach for a sub because I was tired. After that, I felt comfortable back out there.”

His presence and physicality will be needed Wednesday afternoon when No. 23 Ohio State hosts No. 11 Rutgers, which comes to Value City undefeated at 6-0 and fresh off a 91-88 home win against preseason Big Ten title favorite Illinois on Sunday.

When the game gets underway, Liddell figures to be in the circle taking the opening tip. He’ll be aiming to improve on his last performance, further shaking off any rust that accumulated during his layoff and re-acclimating himself to Big Ten play.

It’ll be a challenge, but perhaps one on par with averaging a team-high 15.5 points and 7.5 rebounds through five games while battling the early stages of mono.

“We’ve been looking forward to Rutgers and getting back on the court,” he said. “Just being aware and very detailed, knowing what their players do, and getting back in transition. Our coaches stressed that so much. Looking at the clips, they get the ball and go.”