PITTSBURGH -- E.J. Liddell had the perfect out a year ago. The Ohio State star forward's reasons to move on were there for all to see on his social media feed.
Racist remarks. A death threat from what the school believes was a frustrated gambler. Sinister vitriol following an upset first-round loss to Oral Roberts last March that left Liddell and his family shaken.
Liddell had options. Entering the NBA draft was one. Transferring was another. He opted for neither.
“I don’t think he wanted to leave on that note,” Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said. “I just think also he knew how we felt about him and how he felt about this place, and to his credit, he’s left a great legacy.”
Liddell can build on his achievements on Sunday when the seventh-seeded Buckeyes (20-11) face second-seeded Villanova (27-7) in the second round of the NCAA Tournament's South Region.
Ohio State hasn't reached the Sweet 16 in nearly a decade. The Buckeyes were favored to get there last spring only to make the tournament's most surprising first-round exit despite 23 points, 14 rebounds and five assists from Liddell. The loss devastated him. The hate directed his way in the aftermath, however, only seemed to strengthen Liddell's resolve. He went public about the abuse and simply asked “Why?”
“I give him credit,” Holtmann said. “He’s been really vulnerable and honest and he was in that moment.”
After considering the draft, Liddell opted to come back for his junior season, stressing, “Job's not finished.”
Not by a long shot. Over the past year, Liddell has burnished the fundamentally sound all-around game that will almost certainly earn him a hug from NBA Commissioner Adam Silver during the first round of the draft in June.
The player who arrived at Ohio State in the fall of 2019 as a raw 6-foot-7, 240-pounder has become much more polished. He's improved in every single metric — from scoring to rebounding to assists to steals to blocks to shooting percentage (from the field, 3-point range and the free-throw line) — in each of his three seasons. He's averaging 19.5 points and 8.0 rebounds.
Perhaps just important is how Liddell has helped hold the Buckeyes together during an uneven and injury-marred season. They dropped four of five games before an abrasive 54-41 win over Loyola Chicago in the opening round of the tournament on Friday.
While Ohio State graduate assistant Greg Oden marvels at Liddell's skill development, it's what Liddell has done off the court that stands out.
“He’s the best player and those guys can complain if we’re not playing good,” said Oden, who led the Buckeyes to the 2007 national title game and returned last fall. “But he goes, ‘No, we need to all step it up and you need to follow me.’”
It's not empty talk. After being held largely in check by Loyola in the first half on Friday, Liddell responded by creating his own shot, often nudging one of the Ramblers out of the way with one of his well-muscled shoulders before pulling up for a mid-range jumper that looks easy to block on video, but not in reality.
“He just gets it done. I don't know how to explain it," Oden said. “But you look up and he’s got 16 (points) 10 (rebounds) and three (blocks). And it’s like ‘OK.’”
Or, maybe more like “wow.”
“That’s a pro,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “I show our guys film. Like everyone says, ‘This guy is a pro. That guy is a pro.’ Like THAT’s a pro.”
A future one, anyway. Liddell stayed with the Buckeyes knowing he needed to become a better outside shooter and distributor among other things. Done and done. He's shooting a career-best 37% from 3-point range and has 76 assists, up from 52 last season.
“Sometimes kids come back and they don’t see great improvement in their game for whatever reason, they just don’t,” Holtmann said. “We could talk about a number of guys. He’s really improved, and for me, it’s a great reward because I know it’s going to benefit him in terms of his professional career and his professional opportunities in the NBA. That’s exciting to see that happen for a kid.”
FIRST WEEKEND FUNK
Illinois hasn't escaped the second round of the NCAA Tournament since the 2005 team led by guards Deron Williams and Dee Brown reached the national title game. The 16-year drought includes 2021, when the Illini were the top seed in the Midwest Region only to get knocked off by in-state rival Loyola Chicago in the second round.
Illinois (23-9) is the No. 4 seed and Houston is the fifth, but the Cougars are 5 1/2-point favorites, according to FanDuel SportsBook. That might be a good thing for the Illini.
“I think the one thing that’s out there is you want them to have fun, and you try to keep instilling that, and to go play loose, go play with your hair on fire and just cut loose,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. “It’s a players’ game, and we’ve got good players. We need to be able to go out and show that off.”
TCU will be facing a top seed for the sixth time in 11 games when it takes on Arizona on Sunday night. The Horned Frogs played Kansas three times in 11 days, including a 74-64 victory over the Jayhawks on March 1, and were at Baylor on Feb. 19.
The Horned Frogs also have a three-point win over Texas Tech on Feb. 26. The Red Raiders, the third seed in the West Region, face Notre Dame next.
“We have to be at our best, another 1 seed we’re playing, and we beat Kansas, and we beat (Texas) Tech. They weren’t a 1 seed, but they’re a good team,” guard Mike Miles Jr. said.
Coach Jamie Dixon, who is looking to get his alma mater into the Sweet 16 for the first time, said the preparation of facing the Jayhawks three times in 11 days was unique, but helpful.
“Yeah, our league prepares us for these things. There’s no question about it. I think it’s an advantage for us. I really do,” he said.
AP Sports Writers Tom Withers and Joe Reedy contributed to this report.
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