If Buckeyes all return, 'it'll be pretty hard to beat us,' E.J. Liddell says

Adam Jardy
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State Buckeyes forward E.J. Liddell (32) reacts after making a shot while defended by Rutgers Scarlet Knights forward Mamadou Doucoure (11) during the second half of Wednesday's NCAA Division I basketball game at Value City Arena in Columbus, Oh. on December 23, 2020.

Behind the talk about the vile things said to him on social media and the hopes for a better path forward for everyone, there was a looming question for Ohio State’s E.J. Liddell.

What’s he going to do next year?

After a strong freshman season, Liddell blossomed as a sophomore. He finished second on the team in scoring (16.2 points per game), tops in rebounding (6.7) and third in average minutes played (29.3) while being named first-team all-Big Ten by the league’s coaches.

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It was a significant step forward in every measurable category for the forward, who now has the option of filing paperwork with the NBA to test his draft status while making a decision about where he will play next season.

In a Wednesday morning press conference five days after the sudden end of the season and subsequent death threats he received via social media, Liddell said he hasn’t given his next step much thought yet.

“No sir, I’m just focusing on getting back into my regular life, getting a little more social, getting back to my video games,” he said when asked if he’s thought much about next season.

Since the 2014-15 season, twenty first-team Big Ten players have had the option to return for at least one more season. Of those 20, 12 opted to remain in college basketball.

Of those 12, nine either helped their teams to a better win total or a deeper postseason run. The three exceptions:

*As a sophomore in 2017, Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ was a first-team selection for the first of three straight years. The 2016-17 Badgers went 27-10 and lost in the Sweet Sixteen and followed that up by going 15-18 and missing the tournament the next year as Happ was again a first-team pick.

*A junior in 2017, Nate Mason helped Minnesota to a 24-10 record and a first-round loss in the NCAA Tournament. The next year, the Golden Gophers went 15-17 and did not participate in the 2018 postseason.

*Also a junior, Cassius Winston helped Michigan State to a 32-7 record and a spot in the 2019 Final Four. He would not get an NCAA Tournament in 2020, and the Spartans ended the year at 22-9 so this might be more of a push.

Liddell is Ohio State’s first player named first-team all-Big Ten since Keita Bates-Diop was the 2018 player of the year. It’s been eight years since a Buckeye was named to the first team and didn’t leave school early when Aaron Craft, as a junior, was picked to the team in 2013 alongside teammate Deshaun Thomas, who did not return for a senior year.

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As a sophomore, Ohio State center Kaleb Wesson led the team with 14.6 points and 6.9 rebounds and was named honorable mention all-Big Ten. He went through the draft process, gathered that feedback and returned as a junior to average 14.0 points and 9.3 rebounds, both team-high totals, before opting to turn pro following the season. He was not drafted and played in the NBA’s G League this season.

Liddell was asked about Wesson’s path of getting NBA feedback, returning to work on what was suggested and then moving on.

“I’m giving everything an option,” he said. “As of right now, I’m taking a little time away from basketball and getting back to my regular life. Hopefully I’ll get to go home and see my family again soon and we’ll discuss things then.”

The Buckeyes have the potential to return everyone from this year’s roster save for fifth-year senior CJ Walker, who has announced he will pursue a professional career. The NCAA has given all players an extra year of eligibility due to the pandemic, which means senior Kyle Young could come back for a fifth year if he wants. If he does, he won’t count against the scholarship limit of 13.

If everyone returns, including Liddell, the Buckeyes would bring back 89.3% of their scoring. That would also include guard Duane Washington, a third-team all-Big Ten pick this year who would be a senior next season.

The possibilities aren’t lost on Liddell.

“If everybody puts in the work they need in the offseason, it’ll be pretty hard to beat us,” he said. “I saw Malaki had 37 in the state championship game. That’s pretty cool. Congrats to him. The young guys coming in will give a big help. Meechie Johnson, he used this year to learn a lot from CJ. I feel like we can be pretty good.”

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy