Big Ten Media Days Notebook: Slimmed-Down E.J. Liddell Forms Unlikely Friendship With Hunter Dickinson, Meechie Johnson Expected to “Grow Into A Bigger Role”

By Griffin Strom on October 7, 2021 at 7:03 pm
Kyle Young & E.J. Liddell
© Robert Goddin-USA TODAY Sports

Buckeye basketball begins in a month.

Thursday's Big Ten basketball media days event was a clear signal of that fact, as Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann and forwards E.J. Liddell and Kyle Young all showed up at the Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis to speak with members of the media, alongside Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren and a host of other players and coaches from men’s and women’s hoops teams across the conference.

Holtmann updated the progress of his fifth Ohio State team six practices into the preseason schedule, and discussed his roster in detail during the 40 minutes in which he was available across two press appearances over the course of the day.

Liddell and Young appeared together on one podium in a separate 30-minute time slot, during which the pair talked about their offseason improvement and goals for the coming year.

A collection of notes and storylines stemming from the comments of Holtmann and his players on Thursday:

Liddell slimmed down

The Buckeyes’ star forward has made some noticeable physical changes over the offseason.

After matching up with opposing centers in the Big Ten for much of his sophomore season, E.J. Liddell has stripped weight off his frame to prepare for a season in which he’ll play on the perimeter more than ever before.

“I got like four compliments on my body today. That made me feel good about myself,” Liddell said. “I’ve just been working on my frame, really. Slimming down, just being able to be more mobile. I’m just focused on nutrition and whatnot, so I’m getting better at that.”

Liddell tested the NBA draft process this offseason and attended the G League Combine in Chicago, but ultimately returned to school after he didn’t earn an invite to the NBA Combine. Liddell said scouts want to see defensive versatility from him this year, including the ability to switch onto guards in the Big Ten.

“I feel like you guys will see me on the perimeter a little bit more,” Liddell said. “I’m not a different player than I was last year. I just feel like I improved on the things that I was good at and just got better at those.”

A first-team All-Big Ten performer in 2020-21, Liddell is on the shortlist of preseason contenders for Big Ten Player of the Year ahead of his junior season with the Buckeyes.

Meechie to play expanded role

Ohio State lost both of their best backcourt players from last season, and even with the offseason additions of transfer guards Jamari Wheeler and Cedric Russell, that should mean that Meechie Johnson Jr. will have a bigger role for the Buckeyes this season.

Holtmann confirmed that fact Thursday, as he said the former four-star recruit – who reclassified last November to join Ohio State early – will be called upon to do more for the Buckeyes in 2021-22.

“He’ll run some point, but whether he’s playing point or not, I think scoring’s gonna be an important part of his role this year,” Holtmann said. “We need that from him, whether at the point guard spot or the combo spot. He’s gonna grow into a bigger role, so I think there will be some stuff that, naturally, he’ll work through. We’re gonna need a lot more from him than what we needed last year, and that’s just the reality. I think he’s ready for it. I think as long as he stays healthy, I think he’s poised to have a good freshman year.”

Johnson averaged just 5.8 minutes per game in 17 appearances during what could have been his senior year in high school a season ago. It appears that number will increase this year, along with his points per game average.

Russell still “finding his way”

Louisiana transfer Cedric Russell came to the Buckeye program in the wake of Duane Washington’s decision to stay in the NBA Draft, but it may be unlikely to expect the 6-foot-2 guard to fill those shoes right off the bat this season.

Holtmann said Russell, who enters his fifth year of college basketball in 2021-22, is still going through something of an adjustment period from Sun Belt competition to the Big Ten.

“Cedric I think is finding his way. Any time you jump up a level, it takes you time to find your way,” Holtmann said. “He's in the process of doing that. We're only six practices in right now.”

Holtmann doesn’t think the first-team All-Sun Belt performer is incapable of getting up to speed, but said he may not play his best basketball until the season is a couple of months underway.

“He just has to get comfortable with the pace and the speed of this level. The length, size, pace and speed of this level,” Holtmann said. “He’s a great kid, I’m excited about – I think he’ll continue to grow and learn – but I just think the size, the length and the speed at this level is just a little bit different than what he consistently saw. But he’s a really good player and he’s gonna be fine. I think we’ll see his best basketball mid-year on. I could really see that with him.”

Russell averaged 17.2 points per game for Louisiana last year, and without Washington this year, that scoring ability may be needed.

An unlikely friendship

Ohio State and Michigan engaged in two memorable wire-to-wire contests toward the end of last season, and each team’s first-team All-Big Ten big man featured prominently in both affairs.

The intense, physical nature of both games led to some unspoken animosity between Liddell and Big Ten freshman of the year Hunter Dickinson, but the pair reconciled their differences over the summer.

“I’m gonna be honest, I wasn’t a big fan of Hunter when we first played him. He was kind of setting hard screens on our guards and whatnot,” Liddell said. “But we went to the G League Combine and we just hung out, had some meals together since we were on the same team. Never expected to be on the same team as two Michigan players (Mike Smith). He’s a cool dude, just sitting with him, just getting to know him behind the scenes and whatnot.”

Dickinson described a similar dichotomy when asked about the star player on Michigan’s archrival Thursday.

“It’s always fun to match up with E.J. He’s a pretty cool guy off the court. I got to hang out with him during the G League Combine,” Dickinson said. “I’m not gonna lie, I didn’t really like him before then, but I was able to talk to him. He’s pretty cool off the court. I think we can call ourselves friends now off the court.”

Michigan won the first matchup 92-87 in the Feb. 21 regular season meeting in Columbus, but the Buckeyes got their revenge in a 68-67 win during the Big Ten Tournament. Dickinson said the first game was the most fun game of the season in his opinion, but that neither he nor Liddell could talk too much trash to one another during the combine since the series was split 1-1.

The pair will get at least two more cracks at each other during their collegiate careers this season, as Ohio State takes on Michigan in Ann Arbor on Feb. 12 and hosts the Wolverines in the regular season finale on March 6.

Hardest non-con schedule of Holtmann's career

It’s no secret Ohio State has more than one heavy hitter on its non-conference schedule this season, with the likes of Duke, Kentucky, Xavier and either Florida or California on tap in 2021-22.

When mulling over that slate Thursday, Holtmann touted it as perhaps the steepest set of out-of-conference matchups he’s ever faced as a head coach.

“We put together the most challenging non-conference schedule that I've ever played,” Holtmann said. “I think those will present some real decisions for us here early in the season. It will determine a lot for us in terms of how tough we are early in the season to manage some of the challenging games we have. But I'm excited about that.”

However, Holtmann thinks the veteran nature of his roster – which includes eight seniors on scholarship – could make a difference in the team’s ability to handle such a daunting schedule.

“I don’t know that I’d play as hard a non-conference with a younger team, because they have to build to that,” Holtmann said. “When I got here four years ago, it's what I heard a lot too; ‘We want more challenging non-conference games.’ That’s not the reason why you do it, but it’s kind of always been my mindset anyway. You just learn more about your team earlier.”

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