Forever linked: Ohio State's Chris Holtmann, E.J. Liddell on verge of major milestones

Adam Jardy
The Columbus Dispatch

One item outshone the others on the Liddell family’s wish list.

As E.J. Liddell tried to pick his college destination, the family had plenty of options to weigh and factors to sort. In the end, the Belleville, Illinois, residents valued a relationship with the future head coach above all other criteria and signed to play for Chris Holtmann at Ohio State.

Thursday night at Minnesota’s Williams Arena, that coach and his star player have a chance to simultaneously knock off career milestones. With 12 points, Liddell will become the 60th player in Ohio State history to hit 1,000 for his career. And if he and his teammates defeat the 11-5 Golden Gophers, Holtmann will celebrate becoming the seventh Ohio State men’s basketball coach to reach 100 career wins.

Coach Chris Holtmann on E.J. Liddell: “There’s going to be a few tears shed in the Holtmann house and a lot of homes when he moves on because he’s beloved."

It would be a fitting pair of accomplishments for a coach and player whose fates have been so closely intertwined for years.

“When coach Holtmann and coach (Ryan) Pedon came in, it was sincere, it was family,” said Eric Liddell, E.J.’s dad. “E.J., we put it up to him to make his decision and we supported him 100%, which we are happy that he made this decision because he’s having an awesome career at Ohio State.”

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Liddell is on track to become the first player recruited, signed and developed by Holtmann at Ohio State to be drafted. After turning down the NBA following a first-team all-Big Ten season as a sophomore, Liddell has played himself into the first round of multiple mock drafts and the conversation for national player of the year honors. On Wednesday, ESPN projected him to go to the Cleveland Cavaliers with the No. 24 pick.

He'll be the second Buckeye in as many years to hit 1,000 points, following Duane Washington Jr., who reached the number in his 91st career game and finished with 1,073 points. Liddell is entering his 77th game while averaging a career-high 19.4 points per game and after being pushed daily by Holtmann.

"He’s never let off the gas on me, honestly," Liddell said of his coach. "Every single day he’s coached me as hard as he can. He’s still going to push me no matter what goes on in my life. I’m not a complete player yet and I know that."

Assuming the Buckeyes don’t have any more games canceled due to COVID, they are guaranteed at least 30 this season. At his current rate, Liddell would score 277 more points through the first game of the Big Ten tournament, a total that would put him at 1,265 for his career – 35th all-time and seven behind Keita Bates-Diop.

All for a school that actually got in a little late in Liddell’s recruitment.

Illinois was early in E.J. Liddell’s recruitment, but Ohio State closed

A four-star prospect in the 2017 class, Liddell’s final decision came down to Illinois, Missouri and Ohio State, which was the last of the three to start making inroads.

“They came in later than other schools, and when they came in, when coach Holtmann talked, my wife was like, ‘I love how he talks, the kindness,’ ” Eric Liddell said. “We saw that he was real. We saw him and Pedon, they was real as they talked to us.”

E.J. Liddell has been part of 53 of Chris Holtmann’s 99 wins at Ohio State.

Illinois was actually the first high-major to really start recruiting Liddell, and Liddell’s father had the same summation of the coach as of Holtmann. John Groce was “real,” he said, but following the 2016-17 season he was fired and Brad Underwood was hired in his place. That created an opening through which Holtmann, also hired in 2017 but several months later, was able to wedge his foot.

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Now, Liddell has been part of 53 of Holtmann’s wins.

E.J. Liddell has been part of 53 of Chris Holtmann’s 99 wins at Ohio State.

“I think there’s going to be a few tears shed in the Holtmann house and a lot of homes when he moves on because he’s beloved by us,” Holtmann said. “He’s beloved around here. He’s a tremendous kid who is also a really talented player.”

Only Fred Taylor, Thad Matta have reached 100 wins faster than Chris Holtmann's pace

It might not come Thursday night, but Holtmann would need a significant losing streak to avoid becoming the third-fastest Ohio State coach to hit 100 wins. He will join a list that includes Harold G. Olsen (1923-46), Fred Taylor (1959-76), Eldon Miller (1977-86), Randy Ayers (1990-97), Jim O’Brien (1998-2004) and Thad Matta (2005-17).

Taylor hit the mark faster than anyone, needing only 120 games. Matta got there at 134, while Ayers needed 155, O’Brien 156, Miller 170 and Olsen 189.

It’s not a milestone that’s been on Holtmann’s radar. After big wins, he’s been known to repeat a well-trod phrase that “players win games,” downplaying the significance of coaching in the process.

"Any coach will tell you that their success is directly tied to their ability to recruit good players, and players who also embrace what that coach and coaching staff preaches," Holtmann said. "It’s not just good players, but it’s players that embrace and communicate to other players what’s important to the coaching staff, our program’s culture.

"E.J.’s that. He embodies our program’s culture. 

But to the Liddell family, the reverse is also true: coaches win players.

“(E.J.) could have jumped in and went to the NBA last year,” Eric Liddell said. “I don’t know if he would’ve got drafted, but he could’ve went and got a contract like Duane Washington or someone, but he enjoys and loves Ohio State and the coaches so much. We understand that he wants to play for coach Holtmann, and he’s proving us right. He’s been successful this year.”

Thursday night, the two have a chance to share the spoils of that success. Coach and player, forever linked.

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy

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