At power forward, can E.J. Liddell play alongside Zed Key and Ohio State's centers?

Adam Jardy
The Columbus Dispatch

There’s a lot that's unknown about this Ohio State men’s basketball team, but coach Chris Holtmann has made one thing crystal clear throughout the offseason.

When it comes to E.J. Liddell's third year, there is a plan in place, and the returning first-team All-Big Ten player will spend the 2021-22 season at power forward. Put it in ink, yell it from the rafters of your favorite Big Ten arena and tell a friend. It’s the position Liddell best projects to play at the next level, and the chance to grow at the position was a significant reason he decided to remain in college.

Ohio State's E.J. Liddell will play at the power forward position this season, rather than at center.

In order to do so, though, his teammates will have to prove that a more traditional center can log significant minutes alongside the 6-7, 240-pound Liddell.  

Aside from which players step into an essentially vacated backcourt from a season ago, it’s the biggest question for the Buckeyes as they approach their second week of preseason workouts.

But Liddell believes this won't just the best move for him.

“If they feel like it’s the best situation for me to go out there and guard the 5 and play the 5, I would do it to help win games,” Liddell said at the team’s media day. “Having Joey (Brunk) and Zed (Key) and Kyle (Young), it helps the all-around team," he said. "Coach said he feels like we’ll be better if I’m at the 4, so that helps us win.”

Last season, Ohio State’s frontcourt primarily consisted of Liddell and Young, who at 6-8, 225 pounds is listed one inch taller and 15 pounds lighter than Liddell.

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During the season, coach Chris Holtmann said he didn’t consider either a true center. Together, their mobility and athleticism often allowed the Buckeyes to create mismatches offensively against opposing big men with more size and less agility. Although Liddell missed two games with mononucleosis and Young four due to concussions, they finished third and fifth, respectively, in total minutes played for the Buckeyes. Key, a freshman, played fewer than half as many minutes as either but was often so productive during limited stints that Holtmann would lament not finding him more time.

He’s joined by Indiana transfer Brunk, the only player listed as a center on the official roster. At 6-11, 255 pounds, he’s the tallest and heaviest Ohio State player.

“Between E.J., Kyle, Zed and myself, we all have something that we do well that we all uniquely can bring,” Brunk said. “Depending on the matchups or circumstances, everyone’s role is probably going to look a little bit different, I would think. Stay ready and be ready for whatever comes with the matchups.”

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Liddell and Key spent the most time together last season as part of a lineup that included Duane Washington Jr., CJ Walker and Justice Sueing. In 16:55, that lineup scored 36 points and allowed 29. Of that, only 8:37 was logged in Big Ten play as the lineup scored 14 points and allowed 19. Another lineup with Key and Liddell featuring Walker, Washington and Musa Jallow logged 5:09 together during the Big Ten tournament and was outscored 13-5.

Those marked two of three lineups to feature Liddell and Key together for more than five total minutes. For the season, they were on the court together for 63:56, scoring 111 points and allowing 91 (plus-20). Key said he’s worked to expand his game and add a jump shot, joking that he’s ready to pull up as soon as he crosses half court.

“They’re going to have to guard both of us now, and that puts other teams in a mismatch because their bigs have to come out and if the guards have the ball the bigs aren’t going to be down there so it opens up the paint for everyone,” Key said of the potential to play alongside Liddell. “Me and him, it’s a problem. It’s a really big problem for other teams.”

At least, it has the potential to be. Liddell said he’s been focused on being a better version of himself, more in shape and ready to handle perimeter responsibilities at both ends. The grind of last season, creating mismatches at center against bigger opponents, did take its toll by year’s end, he said. Both Young and Brunk enter the preseason fully healthy and ready to accept whatever their roles might be.

“We believe everybody can play,” Young said. “We like our forwards to be very versatile, be able to move and control the offense to a point. Make passes happen. I think we’ve got the right guys to do it.”

All four will play important minutes. For Ohio State to compete at the top of the Big Ten, they will have to figure out how to do it together.

Men's, women's teams participate in Big Ten media day

Five hundred seventy-four days after the Big Ten men's basketball tournament scheduled for this arena was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Holtmann returned to Indianapolis' Gainbridge Fieldhouse as part of the league's media day.

For the first time, the event featured representatives from both the men's and women's teams spread across two days, giving Holtmann, E.J. Liddell and Kyle Young as much media exposure as women's basketball coach Kevin McGuff and players Braxtin Miller and Jacy Sheldon.

"It's been certainly a different year this year," McGuff said. "Our team has certainly enjoyed more of an opportunity to be together this summer, certainly this fall. I think we're definitely further ahead than we were a year ago."

Holtmann, whose team was picked fourth in the Big Ten preseason media poll, said his team is healthy through six practices save for Seth Towns, who underwent back surgery and will return in December.

"These are big days," Holtmann said. "There's nothing better than being a Buckeye. I'm excited about what's coming."


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