Ohio State Hoops Notebook: E.J. Liddell and Duane Washington Jr. Undecided, Coaching Staff Roles Shifting, No More Additions

By Colin Hass-Hill on April 29, 2021 at 12:05 pm
E.J. Liddell and Duane Washington Jr.

Not since March 19 had head coach Chris Holtmann spoken publicly.

In the month and a half since Ohio State’s first-round NCAA tournament loss to Oral Roberts, the roster has gone through the usual postseason transition period and assistant coach Terry Johnson took a job at Purdue. Holtmann has plenty to talk about, so he took questions for nearly an hour.

We’ll have plenty of more analysis on the program, where it’s headed and the moving pieces in the coming weeks and months. But for now, here are five assorted topics Holtmann hit on in his latest group interview session.

Taking Their Time

Two important decisions have yet to be made.

E.J. Liddell and Duane Washington Jr. both chose to enter the 2021 NBA Draft pool several weeks ago while retaining their collegiate eligibility. The next step for them? Waiting. 

It’s unclear exactly what the pre-draft process will look like. In contrast to last year, there’s a general expectation that prospects will get to work out in front of NBA teams and a select group will have a chance to participate in the annual combine. The specific rules haven’t been defined yet, but both Liddell and Washington will go through the process.

Ten days before the July 29 draft, both of them will have to have made up their minds on whether or not they stay at Ohio State. The general expectation from those who see them as absent from mock drafts and projected to go undrafted is they will each remain in college for at least one more season. That, however, isn’t a foregone conclusion in the mind of Holtmann since they’ll have a shot to work out in front of NBA teams who could take a liking to either of them.

“I'm trying to give them the absolute truth from what I hear from NBA personnel,” Holtmann said. “That's really what I'm trying to do, and separate any kind of personal feeling one way or the other. I really am. I'm really trying as much as possible to look through what is best for both of those young men right now. I think what is best – it used to be what was best for kids was automatically if you were a first-rounder. I think there's still something to be said for being a first-rounder because of the guaranteed contract. But it has changed, too, to some degree.”

Regular lines of communication between Holtmann and his two potential draftees have long been set up.

“We've had a lot of conversations with both families, regular conversations, and will continue to,” Holtmann said. “They're both great kids, both great families. I'm confident that while the decision is not imminent I don't think for either guy, I think they'll make a decision that they feel like is best for them and I'm going to support them along the way.”

Staff Opening

The past two years, the general duties among the assistant coaches remained the same. Ryan Pedon was in charge of the offense, Terry Johnson headed the defense and Jake Diebler handled much of scouting and personnel.

That’ll have to change next season. Johnson decided to leave for Purdue, where he’ll join Matt Painter’s staff as an assistant with a larger hand in the offense.

“I don't just like Terry. I love Terry Johnson. Love him,” Holtmann said. “(His wife) Kristen, the boys, we've been together seven years. Seven years, it's a long time to be together. I just love him as a person. He did good work for us both at Butler and here in our seven years here together. As he mentioned, the idea of doing offense after basically being our defensive coordinator for seven years was appealing in a lot of ways. Just love Terry and his family. They're incredible people. As I've mentioned, I really do think he's going to be a good head coach here sooner rather than later.”

The next step is obvious: Finding Johnson’s replacement. 

Holtmann isn’t necessarily looking for a clone of Johnson. Diebler has shifted over to take responsibility of coaching the defense, giving Ohio State some flexibility as to whom it targets to join the staff.

The head coach said he plans to take his time with the search.

“I love our staff,” Holtmann said. “I think we have, really, an outstanding group. Obviously the two assistants, as well as the support staff, it's a phenomenal group. The position, as you might expect, has been in incredibly high demand. Incredibly high demand. I'm trying to take my time and make sure that, while I did have some ideas in mind here – and really in the last couple years, you always do – I still am trying to take my time with it. I don't anticipate a decision anytime really soon. But I'm excited that it's a position that people are excited about, and I'm excited about the addition that we can add and some of the candidates that I've had conversations with.”

No More Additions

This was clear before Wednesday, but Holtmann made the point again: Ohio State’s roster is full right now.

“Right now, we're at the scholarship limit,” Holtmann said. “It's confusing for me, as well. I’ve had to go to our staff and say, ‘OK, where are we again?’ But right now, we're up against the limit. If there's some type of roster movement in the next month or two, obviously that could change things. But as of now, we're up against it with the scholarship limit.”

The roster movement he’s referring to is that the Buckeyes might look to add somebody if either Liddell or Washington stuck with their plan to go pro. But as long as that doesn’t happen, the roster’s set.

Ohio State currently has a crowded roster with 15 scholarship players.

Fan Mail

A few folks who sent Liddell death threats after the first-round loss to Oral Roberts got their names into the public sphere against their will. Holtmann wanted to make sure to publicize another group of people.

“I want to say a quick thank you to so many Buckeyes who reached out with a letter, an email after the season, in particular in support of E.J. and some of our players, as well as just kind of reflecting on the season,” Holtmann said. “I think it says a lot when your fans have a chance to engage and take the time to do that, whether it's an email or a letter – and I have a stack of them. I don't want this media session to go by without them hearing me say thank you for that. And I know E.J. and his teammates appreciate that, as well.”

Representing the United States

In what Holtmann called a “great honor,” both Zed Key and Meechie Johnson could wear red, white and blue in Latvia later this year.

The duo of sophomores were invited to try out for the U-19 USA Basketball team slated to compete in the FIBA World Cup in early July. To have a shot at making the team, they’ll participate in a late-June training camp led by TCU head coach Jamie Dixon. 

“‘Can we room together there?’ That's the first thing Meechie asked me,” Holtmann said. “So, they're really excited about it and I'm excited about going out there and taking a couple days to watch them during their tryouts.”

Holtmann said he was offered to be an assistant coach of the team but had to decline due to scheduling reasons. He will, however, get a chance to see them in person for a bit.

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