The Ohio State men’s basketball team is 6-1 on the season and ranked No. 23 in the nation.

That lone loss came at Purdue, 67-60, and was one of two games missed by OSU sophomore forward EJ Liddell this season. Liddell also missed the Buckeyes’ closer-than-it-should-have-been 67-61 win over Cleveland State. In both games, Ohio State was outscored in the paint.

Liddell, who had missed those two games with mononucleosis, returned last weekend against UCLA to help the Buckeyes in their 77-70 win over the previously 5-1 Bruins.

Then on Wednesday night, Liddell asserted his dominance in a massive comeback win against the No. 11 Rutgers Scarlet Knights. Liddell scored a career-high 21 points and was instrumental in putting Rutgers in foul trouble, reshaping the momentum of the game along the way.

Even though he started out a little cold from the field against the Boilers, the Buckeyes kept going to him. And head coach Chris Holtmann had no intention of ignoring him in the paint no matter how cold he started.

“I’m not going away from that kid,” Holtmann said after the win over Rutgers. “I’m not going away from EJ Liddell, that’s for sure. He’s a gifted, gifted offensive player. He has taken some real strides in other areas, but 0-5, 0-6, 0-8, we’re not going away from that kid.”

Listed at 6-foot-7 and 240 pounds, Liddell may be undersized at times in the paint, but his strength down low and feel for the basket have helped him overcome any perceived lack of height. His growing overall offensive game is now making him one of the most dangerous players in the Big Ten — and most valuable.

EJ Liddell flexes a bit after a basket. Photo by Tom Orr.

In fact, in the two games without Liddell this season, the Buckeyes scored just 63.5 points per game. With him in the lineup, however, the Ohio State scoring average jumps up to 82 points per game. Liddell is averaging 15.3 points and 6.5 rebounds per game and it was clear the Buckeyes were missing him in his two absences.

It was also clear before the season ever started that the Buckeyes would be relying upon Liddell’s skill set if they were going to reach any of their goals for this year.

“Well, I think we realized in the offseason that when you look at our team, that he was going to be a focal point for us on the offensive end,” Holtmann said. “And he had a good offseason. He had a good summer, despite all that was going on. But I think for us to have a good year, it’ll be different guys at different moments that step up, but he’s gonna be a guy…he’s just really gifted. He’s really gifted in different spots along the floor, in terms of presenting matchup issues. And he’s a willing passer. He’s an unselfish kid.”

Liddell is no longer a freshman and is playing faster and smarter because he’s a year older. He is thinking less and reacting more according to Holtmann. Liddell has always known what he does well, but now he also has a better idea of what he is capable of doing against the competition he sees each week. This has raised his confidence level to the point where when Ohio State needs a basket, they know where they can go to get one.

And Liddell certainly relishes the position he has now been put in.

“I’m just looking forward to making my teammates proud, honestly,” Liddell said after the Rutgers win. “I’m just thankful that Coach would put me in that situation. He trusted me to be in that situation and I love that for our team.”

EJ Liddell provides the Buckeyes with the kind of production and toughness that is necessary to succeed in the Big Ten. As long as he keeps delivering when given the opportunity, Ohio State is going to win many more games than they lose. And perhaps even be able to make the kind of postseason run that Holtmann felt the team was destined for a year ago.

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