Chris Holtmann stumps for E.J. Liddell as Big Ten player of the year after Michigan win

Adam Jardy
The Columbus Dispatch

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Keep in mind, the question was about defense.

Tucked inside Locker Room E in the bowels of the Crisler Center, Ohio State forward E.J. Liddell had just steered most of the conversation about his dominating, 28-point performance at Michigan to his efforts on the defensive side of the floor. He was credited with three blocks, one of which is assured to go down on the postseason highlight reel, helping power No. 16 Ohio State to a 68-57 road win against its rivals.

So when Buckeyes coach Chris Holtmann followed Liddell to the interview room, he credited his team’s leadership and expressed pleasantries about the Wolverines before taking his first question. It was about Liddell’s commitment to his play on defense, but Holtmann heard about a dozen words and launched into a topic that he clearly wanted to bring to the conversation.

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“Will somebody please — sorry to cut you off — will somebody please, somebody outside of the people who follow our program, start talking about E.J. as a player of the year in this league?” Holtmann said. “He is deserving. He is deserving to be in that conversation as a player of the year. And I’m on him as much as everybody every day. But I don’t hear his name mentioned. I don’t know why I don’t hear his name mentioned. Granted, we’ve got to keep winning. We’ve got to win more, whatever, but he’s got to be mentioned in that conversation."

Holtmann continued, picking up steam.

“The year he’s had has been phenomenal. He’s getting better at leading on that end (defense). It’s asking a lot of him, but he should want to just talk about defense because he was phenomenal on offense but our team defense (won the game). But please, he’s deserving of being in that conversation. The year’s not over. He’s got to keep working, but E.J. Liddell is deserving to be in the conversation of player of the year in this league as long as we keep doing well.”

Then, after a 68-second filibuster, Holtmann apologized for cutting off the question and continued the press conference. If Liddell’s play hadn’t done enough, Holtmann’s words underscored just how important the junior forward has been to Ohio State’s success while putting up a rare type of season.

Seventeen of his 28 points came after halftime. He’s now averaging 20.1 points per game, a figure that would be Ohio State’s best since Evan Turner averaged 20.4 during a 2009-10 season where he wasn’t just the Big Ten player of the year – he brought home the national awards as well.

Liddell has scored in double figures in all 21 games this season. He’s topped 20 points in 10 of them including four of the last five and had a career-high 34-point game against Northwestern on Jan. 9. In that light, putting up 28 points isn’t all that crazy – Liddell has hit at least that total in five games this season.

What was surprising was how he got them against Michigan. At least, it was surprising to Liddell.

“They were playing me one-on-one,” he said. “I haven’t seen that a lot this year, people not sending me a lot of help, so I just did what I usually do. I don’t force anything. I felt like I played my game and as they kept playing me one-on-one, I just kept getting to my spots.”

That frequently brought him into one-on-one situations with five-star Michigan freshman Moussa Diabate. The 6-11, 210-pound forward entered the night averaging 8.7 points while committing 2.6 fouls per game. Thursday night against Purdue’s talented, sizeable frontcourt, Diabate tied a season high with 15 points.

Against Liddell, Diabate finished with 9 points and four fouls and never looked comfortable. And with enough shooters on the court to keep Michigan’s defense honest, Holtmann said the Buckeyes were fine with playing through Liddell even if it wasn’t always aesthetically pleasing.

“We were OK with him dribbling into post-ups,” Holtmann said. “It’s not always the prettiest offense when you’re dribbling into a post-up, but he’s really good with that. We felt like we were going to stick with his ability to drive into a post-up. We knew they would stay home (on our shooters).”

While Holtmann said he was fairly confident Liddell would get those kinds of looks, the junior said he was surprised.

“I don’t come into any single game thinking I’m going to get one-on-one looks,” Liddell said. “I just haven’t seen it a lot this year. Usually it’s a lot of help. I just took what they gave me.”

They did, and Liddell feasted as the game went on. He finished 8 for 17 from the floor after missing four of his first five shots and Ohio State attempted only 11 3-pointers, tying for the fewest attempts from deep in a game during Holtmann’s five seasons with the program. The last time Ohio State attempted fewer than 11 came back on Dec. 22, 2016, when the Buckeyes went 3 for 10 in a 79-77 home win against UNC Asheville.

Liddell hit one of those 3s, and it helped fend off any late Michigan thoughts of an upset. Leading 52-47 with 4:20 to play, Liddell took a pass from Cedric Russell and found himself wide-open in the left corner. As 7-1 Michigan center Hunter Dickinson tried to block the shot, Liddell got a clean look at the rim and then nothing else.

“I was kind of open and Hunter Dickinson jumped and I couldn’t see a single thing after I shot it,” he said. “Hand down, man down.”

It all added up an 11-point Ohio State win against its rivals to the north in a game it led for 26:13 and only trailed for 9:50.

“I feel like we came out with some bite,” Liddell said. “Came out with a lot of toughness. New guys, this was their first experience of the rivalry but a couple guys on this team knew what it takes. We kept implementing that and talking about it.”

Rutgers déjà vu creeps in for Ohio State against Michigan

All of the similarities were there from an ending the Buckeyes would like to forget.

Wednesday night at Rutgers, Ohio State held an eight-point lead with 3:46 to play but was outscored 10-0 to close the game in a loss that Holtmann would liken to a gut punch. The Buckeyes had led for much of the game only to falter in the closing minutes.

Fast-forward three days, and when Cedric Russell hit a jumper with 3:32 to play, Ohio State called timeout. The lead was … eight points.

Déjà vu, anyone?

“They didn’t say anything about it, but I definitely thought about it,” Liddell said. “I was in the huddle saying, get a stop, get a stop. If we would’ve gotten a single stop in that (Rutgers) game we possibly could’ve won. I wasn’t trying to think about it too much, I just knew what it took to go out there and get the victory.”

“We’ve been up eight in the last couple minutes before,” Holtmann said in a deadpan voice.

After that Ohio State timeout, Michigan’s Eli Brooks hit a 3-pointer to pull within five points and the crowd started to stir. In response, Ohio State fifth-year forward Kyle Young drew a foul with 2:59 to play, hit both sides of a one-and-one free-throw trip and pushed it back to a three-possession game.

Michigan never got any closer.

“You know that games can turn,” Holtmann said. “People don’t realize, three and a half minutes is a really long time. You’re talking about as many as 10 more possessions in a game. People from the outside don’t always get that, but if you’ve been in the arena you understand how long a college basketball game is with three and a half to go.”

Russell, who tied a season high with 12 points, chuckled when asked if he started to have Rutgers flashbacks in the final moments.

“Nah, not really, man,” he said. “We really don’t have time to reflect on past situations, just being in that moment and doing everything it takes to come away with a win. We leaned on each other and stayed together and stayed the course.”

Cedric Russell plays most complete game of season

Louisiana graduate transfer Cedric Russell is rounding into form at a time when the Buckeyes need him the most. He played a season-high 24:26, basically double his Big Ten average of 12.3 minutes per game, and had 12 points for a third time this season.

In his last six games, Russell is averaging 7.5 points while picking up the slack from Justin Ahrens (scoreless at Michigan, more than one made field goal in just one of his last seven games) and injured second-year guard Meechie Johnson (right ankle sprain).

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Games like this are why Russell said he came to Ohio State

“I didn’t come to waste my time,” he said. “I came to win and make a statement. This team is special. We have a great group of guys. We really can do something this year.”

In addition to his scoring, Russell got his coach’s attention when a brutal charge he took during the second half when Michigan’s Frankie Collins wildly flew into the paint.

“Cedric’s plays were, I thought in some ways, the difference of the game,” Holtmann said. “The charge he took, two loose balls, the offensive pop he gave us. I thought he was tremendous.”

Gene Brown III makes first career start in place of Meechie Johnson Jr.

After suffering a sprained ankle during the second half of the Rutgers game, Ohio State second-year guard Meechie Johnson Jr. watched the game from the bench with a walking boot on his right leg.

In his place, second-year wing Gene Brown III made his first career start after missing the last two games with a turf toe injury to his left foot. In 26:46, Brown pulled down a team-high eight rebounds.

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“I’m really proud of Gene’s continued growth as a player,” Holtmann said. “He’s got a foot that’s bothering him right now but he fought through it. He needs to continue to fight through it, because we need him. I think he is important for this group. He’s important for our program now and moving forward. He’s got an ever-evolving game. He’s a bigger wing, which you need at this level. He’s got versatility at both ends. I was proud of him.”

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“Coach just challenged us on the defensive side of things. The end of that Rutgers game, the last four minutes, we didn’t get a stop. The result was an L. We didn’t want that to happen again tonight. He challenged us on the defensive side of the ball and tonight we responded.” – Russell

“People kind of know that Cedric is a great scorer, no matter when, where. Coach puts him in the game, I think he’s gonna get a bucket. He’s crucial. I tell everybody to stay ready. Everybody’s going to have their big moments. We’re going to need everybody down the stretch.” – Liddell

“We don’t come close to winning the game tonight without Kyle. I don’t know what he scored. I don’t know what his rebounds were. We don’t come close. He battled a bigger guy, a really talented player. Deflected balls, was able to switch some and change some shots with guards. Got some extra possessions. Fought like hell, like he normally does. Listen, a lot of games matter to him, but as an Ohio kid, this one means a lot to him.” – Holtmann, on Young

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy

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