E.J. Liddell focused on wins as battle with fellow Big Ten elite Johnny Davis approaches

Adam Jardy
The Columbus Dispatch

E.J. Liddell heard the whispers during Ohio State’s multi-week layoff.

As he rained 3-pointers on Northwestern on Sunday evening, each one of his career-high 34 points served as a ringing endorsement that those who doubted he could return to form following Ohio State’s 22-day COVID-19 pause. Following the 95-87 win against the Wildcats, Liddell said as such.

They might have fueled him to new heights, but the same can’t be said for his crop of fellow elite Big Ten players. Arguably the frontrunner for conference player of the year honors after Ohio State beat Wisconsin on Dec. 11 while averaging 20.6 points and 7.2 rebounds, Liddell’s rough patch came while a handful of players around the league have kicked into high gear.

Yes, Liddell was watching Jan. 3 as Wisconsin’s Johnny Davis scored 37 in a win at Purdue and Iowa’s Keegan Murray had 35 in a win against Maryland. He most certainly was aware of Illinois’ Kofi Cockburn scoring 29 in a win against Minnesota one day later, and he personally witnessed Indiana’s Trayce Jackson-Davis score 27 against the Buckeyes on Thursday.

Each has emerged as a viable candidate for the league’s top individual award this season. But their individual performances didn’t add any more logs to Liddell’s internal fire.

“I like winning basketball games,” he said after the Northwestern win. “If somebody drops 40 and they lose a game, that doesn’t mean much. I’m about winning games.”

Buckeyes basketball:Ohio State adds non-conference game with IUPUI

Liddell and Davis will meet for a second time this season when the Buckeyes close the season series at Wisconsin on Thursday night. In the first meeting, Davis had 24 points on 11-of-22 shooting but Liddell finished with a game-high 28, shot 11 for 16 from the floor and got the win. Ohio State’s 73-55 victory marks the lone loss for the Badgers this season with Davis in the lineup, and it took place Dec. 11.

From there, the Buckeyes would go 22 days before playing another game. After the Ohio State game, Davis missed a Dec. 15 home win against Nicholls State and the Badgers would have their next game canceled due to positive COVID-19 tests within their own program.

In his first game back, Davis finished with 20 points but was 6 for 23 from the floor in a Dec. 29 win against Illinois State. Since the New Year, though, Davis has sailed into the national consciousness after putting up 37 points in a win at Purdue on Jan. 3, 26 in a home win against Iowa on Jan. 6 and 19 in Sunday’s one-point road win against Maryland.

He enters Thursday night third in the Big Ten in scoring at 22.3 points per game, one spot ahead of Liddell at 20.1 who also leads the league in blocks with 3.2 per game and is ninth in field-goal percentage (.509) and 13th in rebounding (7.2).

“I knew this season was going to be a lot of ups and downs,” Liddell said. “I wasn’t going to be a perfect player all season. I watch guys like Steph Curry right now, who just broke the all-time 3-point record, he’s struggling a little bit but everybody knows how much he impacts the team. Me as a player, I know I impact the game more than just scoring and I’m going to continue to do that no matter how long I play.”

His 34-point game against Northwestern came with coach Chris Holtmann and top assistant Ryan Pedon both watching from home after testing positive for COVID-19. Both are expecting to return at Wisconsin. Liddell had 17 points in the first five minutes, helping provide an early security blanket for acting head coach Jake Diebler.

“We went in and drew up E.J. Liddell scoring 17 points in five minutes,” Diebler said, jokingly. “No, E.J. playing the way he did, we knew that he was going to break through this (stretch). We knew we were going to have to rely on him with coach being out even more so than usual, and he delivered in a big way. His start helped ease everybody for the rest of the game.”

Wisconsin enters the game with a five-game winning streak. Ohio State is in search of a top-15 true road win in its first such opportunity all season.

All eyes will be on Liddell and Davis, whether they realize it or not.