After An 8-2 Start to the Season, E.J. Liddell Believes Ohio State Can Be “The Best Team in the Nation, Easily”

By Griffin Strom on December 13, 2021 at 10:10 am
E.J. Liddell

E.J. Liddell made a bold proclamation on Saturday.

Brimming with confidence after an 18-point blowout win over 22nd-ranked Wisconsin in Columbus, the Buckeyes’ fourth straight win during an 8-2 start to the season, Liddell expressed exactly how good he thinks Ohio State can be moving forward.

“When we run our stuff, I feel like we’re the best team in the nation, easily,” Liddell said at the post-game press conference. “When everybody’s doing the simple things, making the right plays, taking the right shots, I feel like we could be right up there with anybody.”

Whether you agree with it or not, the statement sounds a lot more reasonable now than it would have just a couple weeks ago.

Entering the final day of November, Ohio State had lost two games out of its past three, and there was hardly any public resistance to the fact that the Buckeyes were outside of the AP Top 25. Ohio State’s losses to Xavier and Florida were decided by just nine combined points, but before that, the Buckeyes needed a game-winning shot to beat Akron by a single point and struggled to distance themselves from a Niagara team that they only defeated by 10.

A three-point win over then-No. 21 Seton Hall provided a glimmer of hope for the Buckeyes’ potential, but few expected Ohio State to stand much of a chance when the newly crowned No. 1 team in the country came to town on Nov. 30.

Skeptics appeared to be vindicated when Duke went up 15 on the Buckeyes two minutes into the second half at the Schottenstein Center, but what followed might have marked a turning point in Ohio State’s season. The Buckeyes stopped the Blue Devils from hitting all but four field goals the rest of the way, and Ohio State outscored Mike Krzyzewski and company 37-17 in the final 18 minutes to pull off an improbable comeback upset.

Ohio State was in desperate need of a boost in confidence, and it got one and then some that night.

“Our group, being down 15 at home to the No. 1 team in the country, coming back from that certainly gave our group some needed confidence,” Buckeye head coach Chris Holtmann said Sunday. “E.J. mentioned that. But listen, you’re only as good as the way you perform on that given night. So there’s no guarantees towards anything. But certainly to be 2-0 (in Big Ten play), to play well, to beat a good team at home feels good, and I think gives our guys the belief that if we continue to get better, we can put ourselves in the position to win.”

For Liddell and the Buckeyes, any claim to the title of nation’s best team is certainly not hindered by a win over the country’s No. 1 team.

But maintaining that momentum thereafter has been just as impressive. Few would have been shocked to see the Buckeyes lose a letdown game on the road against Penn State five days after the excitement of the Duke win, but they won it instead. The Buckeyes didn’t look like world-beaters against Towson on Wednesday, but they still finished with a double-digit margin of victory.

Perhaps just as surprising as the win over Duke was the extent to which Ohio State dominated the Badgers in the second conference matchup of the season on Saturday. The Buckeyes led by as many as 23 points in the final minute of the contest, never allowed Wisconsin a threatening final run in the homestretch and demonstrated a clear separation in class despite just a one-rank difference between the two programs in the AP poll.

“The leadership of our group, I don’t want to underestimate that,” Holtmann said. “I think when you combine Justin (Ahrens), E.J., Kyle (Young), now Jamari (Wheeler), those guys have taken a real leadership role. I’ve been really pleased with that. I think that’s so important when you start out and drop a couple and you struggle on the road. So leadership, been really pleased with that. And then I’ve been really pleased with our progress, the fact that we’ve gotten better.”

But Holtmann’s Buckeyes have had promising starts in the past that have been followed by rude awakenings in January. That may be one reason why Ohio State’s head coach said he doesn’t “make too a big deal” out of the Buckeyes’ impressive start, even if he acknowledges that “it makes your Christmas a little better.”

This season, though, the Buckeyes certainly could get better with time. With several new roster additions still adjusting to their roles, Ohio State might have its best basketball ahead of it, especially with the potential returns of injured forwards Justice Sueing and Seth Towns still looming.

It could be easy to forget that the Buckeyes have gone on their current run without the services of who might be their second-best player in Sueing, who is dealing with an abdominal injury, but that’s not a fact Holtmann has overlooked.

“To be where we’re at right now feels good given the loss of a couple really important players, but obviously we know how important Justice was to us last year,” Holtmann said.

Following a stretch of three games in seven days for the Buckeyes, Holtmann said both he and the team are in need of a “mental break." They’ll get one this week, as Ohio State doesn’t play another game until Saturday, but it won’t be an easy return to action against John Calipari’s 10th-ranked Kentucky team.

For Liddell, who said he’s looking forward to playing that game on his birthday, the matchup with the Wildcats will be another chance to back up his claim about the Buckeyes. As for what Holtmann thinks about his star player’s statement, he’s just pleased that Liddell isn’t lacking in self belief.

“I love confident players,” Holtmann said. “But I haven’t seen every team in the country, I’m just worried about can we be the best version of us. Listen, I’ll take a confident player over a player who doubts himself any day. I love confident players.”

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