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OSU's Chris Holtmann talks E.J. Liddell, Iowa, Zed Key and more on radio show

Adam Jardy
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State Buckeyes head coach Chris Holtmann watches from the bench during Sunday's NCAA Division I Big Ten Conference men's basketball game against the Michigan State Spartans at Value City Arena in Columbus, Ohio on January 31, 2021. Ohio State won the game 79-62.

One day removed from a 79-62 win against Michigan State, Ohio State climbed to No. 7 in the Associated Press top 25 poll. With a road date against No. 8 Iowa up next Thursday, Buckeyes coach Chris Holtmann held his weekly radio show Monday.

In case you couldn’t listen, here are the highlights.

E.J. Liddell continues to excel

Sophomore forward E.J. Liddell has scored at least 20 points in four of Ohio State’s last five games.

“It’s been phenomenal,” Holtmann said of Liddell’s growth. “His play has really been phenomenal. His growth, it’s hard to really overstate the impact he’s had as a sophomore. He just continues to get better in front of our eyes. We saw it coming last year, really about this time was when he started to hit his stride. We really saw him come into form in February and March. He had a great summer.”

Holtmann said he has to still watch Liddell’s minutes.

“He’s more conditioned … (but) he can’t play as much as he’s playing in terms of the physicality of playing bigger guys,” he said. “I can’t play him 35 minutes, but boy has he been efficient.”

Jake Diebler impacts the defense

Holtmann credited assistant coach Jake Diebler for specifying one of the primary points of emphasis for the Buckeyes as they prepared to defend the Spartans.

“Jake Diebler coined it this way: our defense had to be terrific in the first seven seconds of the shot clock,” Holtmann said. “We had to be on high alert and I felt like if we could do that, we could make it difficult for them. We have to make teams earn it against us. We fouled too much yesterday. One of our core tenants is make them earn it. We made them earn it in scoring in the half court.

“I thought we did some really good things in terms of keeping them out gf transition and keeping them off the glass, which were two major points of emphasis. We felt like if we could do that we could impact them defensively. Those are the biggest things. You always have to address those when you’re playing Michigan State. They’re a talented group that’s searching to find their way this season so we didn’t want to give them momentum.”

Up next: Iowa

The Buckeyes will face the Hawkeyes on Thursday in a top-10 battle.

(Iowa obviously is an elite team,” Holtmann said. “I think Final Four-good and national championship-good. They came into the season with the consensus preseason college basketball player of the year but they’re much more than that. They’re really versatile, big, physical. They are the best offensive team in the country right now. Maybe Gonzaga has a little bit of an argument but statistically Iowa has them. We have an elite offense. We’re fifth in the country in offense, but our numbers, they’re not close to Iowa’s. We’ll need to be our best there at their place for sure.”

Holtmann was asked if the Buckeyes will look to contain Luka Garza or let him get his and focus on his teammates.

“That’s the question,” he said. “It’s pick your poison. He’s a little bit of a throwback. I think he can be an NBA player given his skill set. I think for them, it’s not just him, and that’s what makes Iowa’s offense historically good. You’ve got Wieskamp, you’ve got Fran’s sons who generate some offense. They’ve got great skill. I think across the board it can’t just be about Garza, but he can’t go for 40 and 15 against us. There has to be an awareness of him and how we’re going to attack him.”

Zed Key doing work

Freshman Zed Key has filled in behind Kyle Young and Liddell in the Ohio State frontcourt but in mostly limited minutes, and Holtmann said he’s been putting in extra work to keep his conditioning level up.

“Terry gets him an extra workout every day,” Holtmann said. “I give Zed credit for embracing that, and they do conditioning every day. This time of year when you’re practicing a little bit less, when you’re doing that you’ve got to be able to do some supplemental things for guys whose minutes are limited. Terry Johnson does that with him every single day. Then he comes and does a full practice. We do that with a few of our young guys we know we’re going to need but minutes might be limited. I think it’s benefitted him because he’s been able to maintain a level of conditioning.”

Ohio State men's basketball:Freshman Zed Key bringing energy, 'finger guns' to Buckeyes

Holtmann said the Buckeyes are looking for ways to get Key more minutes.

“His efficiency, how many times am I going to look at the stat sheet and see he’s played 14 minutes and has 12 points?” he said. “His impact on the game is immediate, and usually it’s an immediate impact in terms of a deep post catch and seal. His minutes in general against Penn State were critical. He got us some easy scores against their pressure. Really proud of him.”

Kyle Young, Seth Towns working through injuries

Two of Ohio State’s primary players, Towns and Young have been limited in practice in order to keep them available for games. It presents a challenge for practice.

“That’s different than any team I’ve coached, the number of guys we’ve had out due to injury or that we’re nursing back from some type of recovery," Holtmann said. “Last year, Kyle’s injury and trying to hold him out really affected his overall play enough where it was noticeable to us. This year, Kyle’s been able to maintain a still high level of play and he’s grown as a player.

Ohio State men's basketball:In Northwestern performance, Seth Towns shows glimpse of Ohio State future

“Both of them have had a tremendous impact in spite of not always being able to practice as much. Seth is getting into a fairly consistent routine. It’s not every drill or every day, but he’s giving us what he can and it’s been really, really good for us.”

Towns, in particular, is being asked to improve his game on the defensive end.

“He could roll out of bed and score,” Holtmann said. “He’s really gifted scoring the ball. He’s got elite touch and can really shoot it. For him, we always knew at this level he’s got to continue to get better defensively. In a lot of ways it’s not his fault. He just hasn’t had enough practice time to learn our system.

Duane Washington slumping, still contributing

The junior guard has seen his shooting percentages dip significantly during the last three games, but Holtmann said Washington continues to impact the game in other ways while acknowledging that he still needs to shoot better.

“That’s been a real addition to his game is his playmaking,” Holtmann said. “He’s got a level of obviously respect within our league when the ball’s in his hands, so it opens up things for his teammates. And he’s really commanding a lot of attention. Now, he can finish better. He’s missed some open looks and he still takes too hard of shots at times, but he’s also getting the best defensive matchup every night. Some of that has created opportunities for other guys.

“He’s grown in a lot of areas. He’s got to keep growing, but I’m really pleased with some of his decision making. It’s made major strides. He’s not there yet. He’s done it under a lot of duress at times.”

Buckeyes and big men

Holtmann took a submitted question asking about the need to recruit a true center for future Ohio State rosters.

“In this league, you have to have them,” he said. “Now, size does not always equate to a good rebounder or a good center. What you’re looking for, we have a guy on our staff, Terence Dials, who was Big Ten player of the year and he’s about 6-9. That’s big, and he’s got long arms, but he was so effective at his position but maybe not as big as some of the guys he played against. Today’s game has really went away from the traditional center. We talked about that a lot with Kaleb (Wesson). I don’t think we’d want three traditional centers on our roster. I don’t think that’s an effective construction in today’s college basketball. I don’t think it makes sense to have that, but you want to have one or two for sure.”

Holtmann cited Key as a player who provides a true low-post option who can also block shots.

“I hear it,” he said. “I hear it from my dad, people of my dad’s generation: ‘When are you going to get the big center, coach?’ I get it, but the game has changed and evolved. On top of that, how the game is officiated, that’s changed a bit too.”

Jimmy Sotos, Ibrahima Diallo updates

Both Sotos and Diallo are out due to injury, but the Buckeyes will know more about Sotos this week.

“Both guys are making progress,” Holtmann said. “We’ll know more about Jimmy, it’ll be a decision this week as far as what’s the next step for him. We’re talking more with the doctors about him. It was a significant injury. That was something he’s got to continue to work through. Ibrahima, he is making progress. He’s not returned to practice or drills yet but hopefully we’ll get him back here soon.”

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy