On March 2, 2017, Belleville West High School squared off against crosstown rival Belleville East in the Illinois men’s basketball state tournament with a trip to the regional finals on the line.
E.J. Liddell, a high school sophomore at the time, dropped a career-high 43 points to push his Maroons past Belleville East. Liddell’s scoring outburst lifted him past 1,000 career points in his high school career and cemented him as one of the top recruits in Illinois.
Five years later, Liddell is looking to break that milestone once again — sitting at 988 points in his Ohio State career.
With Ohio State heading to Minneapolis for a meeting with Minnesota Thursday, Liddell will likely break that milestone and etch his name in the record books as the 60th Buckeye to eclipse 1,000 career points.
“I was remembered at my high school, my middle school, and I wanted to do the same thing here,” Liddell said. “I just feel like I’m just getting closer and closer to that.”
Arriving at Ohio State as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch metro area player of the decade, Liddell saw his role decrease significantly during his transition from high school to college — averaging just 16.5 minutes per game as a freshman.
Despite the limited playing time, Liddell showed flashes of what he could become, producing memorable performances including one against his home-state team then-No. 23 Illinois March 5, 2020. Against the Illini, Liddell posted his first career double-double, dropping 17 points on 7-for-9 shooting and collecting 11 boards.
While Liddell endured the role reduction that comes with being a freshman, he said fighting through the adversity of that season helped with his growth.
“It’s been a lot of learning experiences, a lot of humbling moments. I remember my freshman year I played in a game and I didn’t even have sweat on my jersey,” Liddell said. “It’s just been learning to stand with it, staying focused and fighting through adversity.”
As his role increased in his sophomore season, Liddell emerged as the No. 2 scoring option for the Buckeyes en route to a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. The Belleville, Illinois, native averaged 16.2 points and 6.7 rebounds per game while picking up All-Big Ten First Team honors.
Although Liddell made a jump in production, Ohio State became the ninth No. 2 seed to lose to a No. 15 seed in the first round of March Madness, falling to Oral Roberts in overtime 75-72 March 19, 2021. In the loss, Liddell missed a key free throw with 37 seconds remaining in regulation which would have put the Buckeyes up three.
That stunning loss and the harassment he faced in the aftermath of the game did not slow Liddell’s growth as a person and a player.
Now in his final season with the Buckeyes, Liddell has eclipsed double-digit scoring in all 16 games — continuing a streak of 27 consecutive games with more than 10 points.
As an opponent-turned-teammate of Liddell, graduate guard Jamari Wheeler praised the junior forward for his play in 2021-22.
“Great. Keep playing the way [he’s] playing; he’s playing like a dog,” Wheeler said. “We’re just going to keep following him.”
Head coach Chris Holtmann, who recruited Liddell and has coached him the past three seasons, emphasized the impact Liddell has made on the program and said that he has built his own legacy as a Buckeye.
“I love the contribution E.J. has made to our program. He’s a phenomenal kid from a phenomenal family. He’s just made an incredible mark,” Holtmann said. “His legacy is going to be one that is significant because of who he is as a player and who he is as a kid.”
Although Liddell has created countless memorable moments on the court as a Buckeye, it’s the impact he’s made off the floor that brings him the greatest sense of pride.
With another milestone set to be broken by Liddell Thursday, he said he wants to be remembered at Ohio State for his character, not just his on-court prowess.
“I just want to be remembered as being a great person, honestly. Around this program, I know all of the managers’ names, I know everybody in the program’s names. I just feel like those things are important,” Liddell said. “Being a great individual every single day, coming in this program, just being remembered as one of those guys — not even as a basketball player because I feel like that handles itself.”