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Ohio State's E.J. Liddell inspires those back home in southern Illinois while winning with the Buckeyes

Adam Jardy
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State forward E.J. Liddell (32) has made an impression among college basketball observers across the country this year in leading the Buckeyes in scoring and rebounding. But his high school coach's family in Illinois already knew his value.

There’s a silver lining in mostly being confined to home during a pandemic, and Joe Muniz and his family have found it.

Once or twice a week this time of year, Muniz flips on the television and quickly has a crowd. Daughters Addyson and Ava, seventh- and fourth-graders, respectively, will emerge from their rooms or whatever activity they were enjoying to pull up a seat and watch the Ohio State men’s basketball team.

There is, admittedly, a vested interest. Muniz coached E.J. Liddell for four years at Belleville West High School in southern Illinois, where the current Buckeyes sophomore led the Maroons to consecutive state titles while also earning Illinois Mr. Basketball honors in both seasons.

So whenever No. 7 Ohio State tips off, like it will Thursday night at No. 8 Iowa with a chance to solidify itself as a Big Ten title contender, Muniz’s daughters are watching the player they refer to as their big brother alongside the coach who thinks of him as a son.

“We’ve been very proud of who he is, how he’s gone about his business and how he’s evolved in his game,” Muniz told The Dispatch this week. “We haven’t missed one game in his two years that he’s played. We’ve either taped it and watched it later or this year we’ve watched it live because you can’t do anything else.”

What they’ve seen lately is the rest of the nation catching up to the potential Muniz saw in Liddell's early prep career. Ohio State’s leading scorer at 15.3 points per game as well as its leading rebounder, Liddell has put together a dominant five-game stretch that has coincided with his team’s rise toward the top of the league standings.

After failing to make a basket but still pulling down 10 rebounds in an 81-71 home win against Northwestern on Jan. 13, Liddell has averaged 19.8 points in his past five games, reaching at least 20 in three straight.

Included is a career-high 26-point effort against the home-state Illinois program that heavily recruited him. A four-star prospect in the 247Sports.com composite rankings, Liddell was the No. 44 overall recruit in his class.

Ohio State men's basketball:E.J. Liddell starting to flourish for Buckeyes

At the time, Muniz felt that ranking was low. What he has been watching only strengthens that belief.

“If he came out of Chicago, you’re talking about a top-20 kid, probably,” he said. “But because he came out of southern Illinois, outside of St. Louis, I didn’t think he got the recognition nationally that he truly deserved.”

E.J. Liddell had a breakout game in Ohio State's last visit to Iowa, totaling 17 points and eight rebounds in a loss to the Hawkeyes.

Carver-Hawkeye Arena is about a 4½-hour drive from Belleville, and the home of the Hawkeyes was where Liddell started to first assert himself as an OSU freshman. As Iowa’s Luka Garza was on his way to a 24-point night, Liddell came off the bench and scored a team-high 17 points. He didn’t back down from Garza, blocking one of his shots and occasionally driving right at him.

His play caught Garza’s attention.

“He was really lethal with his mid-range jumper against our zone,” Garza said. “He did a really good job that whole year when he could. He just didn’t have as many opportunities because Kaleb Wesson played, but he grinded in the offseason and it’s paying off for him.”

Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann has repeatedly referenced the fact that Liddell remains among the youngest players on the roster despite now being a key component of any opposing scouting report. It took only a week or two into the season, Holtmann said, for the Buckeyes to recognize that Liddell could become a go-to player in crunch time.

“We did want to see him as he was growing his game as a sophomore,” Holtmann said recently. “He’s obviously made a tremendous jump. He’s a unique matchup, and we knew that when we recruited him.”

So did Muniz, and it’s part of what makes watching Liddell blossom so special to his family. But there’s also the off-the-court stuff, the way Liddell will always answer FaceTime calls from Muniz’s daughters with the same warm smile, the way they appreciate his TikTok videos as much as his jump shots and the way he remains loyal to those who knew him “back then.”

Back home, he’s an inspiration.

“I texted him the other night, ‘Dude, you’re just a pure winner,’ ” Muniz said, referring to the Northwestern game. “That’s what he is. His comment after the game was, ‘Hey, we won the game. I don’t care.’ ”

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy

No. 7 Ohio State at No. 8 Iowa

When: 7 p.m. Thursday

TV: ESPN

Radio: WBNS-FM (97.1)