BELLEVILLE, Ill. — The stoppage of play in NCAA basketball because of the spread of the coronavirus couldn't have come at a worse time for Ohio State freshman E.J. Liddell.
The Belleville native was in the midst of a breakout end of the season for the Buckeyes and averaging more than 20 minutes a game off the bench for the past month.
Liddell had back-to-back double digit scoring games for the first time in his college career and had just registered his first career double-double against Illinois on March 5.
More than that, Ohio State had a chance to make a run in the big dance. As of the last ESPN bracketology, the Buckeyes were projected as a five seed, with a winnable path to the Sweet 16.
"We were getting prepared to play Purdue in the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis, and like two hours before we were supposed to play our coach told us it was canceled," Liddell said. "It was kind of disappointing because we worked so hard and got so far and had a great season, and just for it to end so soon."
"We worked hard all season. It was just disappointing for our seniors that didn't get a chance to fulfill their dreams and get an opportunity to win a national championship. And I didn't get the chance to experience what the NCAA Tournament would feel like. I feel like we worked hard to get there and we have a lot of work ahead to get back there next season."
It took a little while for Liddell to find his groove at Ohio State in his freshman campaign. The former Maroon wasn't averaging a whole lot of playing time, and had to make his minutes count. But as the season rolled on, Liddell's hard work in practice started to pay off.
"I feel like I still had to adjust to my role in everything. My whole life I've been like the center of attention on my team. So, adjusting to that was kind of difficult. And towards the end of the season, I felt like I was adjusting to that more and just playing harder and with more confidence and how I know how to play," Liddell said. "Just sticking with it. Coaches told me just to stay with it in practice and keep practicing hard and you'll see the results. And I just practiced hard all year and it started clicking. And I was looking forward to the tournament and having a showing out party."
Liddell finished the season second on the team in total blocks and had a knack for performing his best in the biggest games. He had 12 points against ranked Michigan State, 17 points against ranked Illinois and Iowa and 12 points against a ranked North Carolina earlier in the season.
But this is just the beginning for the talented forward. He's always had his sights set on eventually playing at the highest level of the game.
"Like Joel Embiid says, 'Just trust the process.' Everybody has different routes to get there. Everybody has different goals, but my goal is to get to the NBA one day. Like Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, those guys got huge contracts by going to mid major and small schools, and that was their journey and I'm taking mine," Liddell said.
While he's working to get to the pros, Liddell does have someone in mind to model his game after. And it might not be who you expected.
"People might think this weird, but I think Paul Millsap. Paul Millsap is 6'6"/6'7", been playing power forward his whole career. I model my game off of him," Liddell said. "He just works a lot in the mid-range area and is just a good basketball player."