EJ Liddell had just enough juice.
As he rode home from Belleville West High in January, Liddell’s phone buzzed. The Ohio State men’s basketball coaching staff was on the line and needed a few minutes.
It was a moment Liddell imagined. A moment he hoped for. A moment he’d never forget.
Now a senior forward for the Maroons, Liddell didn’t know if his phone would let the moment happen. His battery was running on fumes.
“My phone was on 2 percent. They called me for the first time. I was hoping my phone wouldn’t die,” Liddell said with a wide grin. “Then they offered me and I got really excited. I’ve had that feeling for a long time.”
The offer came in January. Monday night, he took Ohio State up on it. Liddell, in front of a small gathering of family, friends and fans in Belleville, verbally committed to play for the Buckeyes next year. The first day he can sign his binding national letter of intent is Nov. 14.
A 6-foot-7, 230-pound power forward, Liddell chose Ohio State from three finalists that also included the universities of Missouri and Illinois. He had 19 offers, including from St. Louis University, Florida, Connecticut, Kansas State, Marquette and Northwestern.
Liddell, 17, took official visits to his finalists in the last six weeks. When he was through, he couldn’t shake the feeling he had the first time he talked to Ohio State.
“I’ve loved Ohio State since I was a kid. I thought the best of Ohio State for a long time,” Liddell said. “I thought I was going to play football and they’ve always had a top-five football program every year. When I realized I could play basketball, I kept that in consideration.”
Liddell said he envisions himself fitting in on the court in Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann’s forward-heavy scheme. The Buckeyes like to get their forwards involved in a variety of ways, and Liddell has a variety of talents to contribute.
“They run through their versatile forwards,” he said. “That’s the type of style I like to play.”
Liddell averaged 21 points, eight rebounds, six blocks and three assists and hit 58 percent of his field-goal tries and 79 percent of his free throw attempts as a junior. He was the anchor as Belleville West went 32-2 and won the Illinois Class 4A state championship in March, the first state title for West and just the second in Belleville — Althoff won the Class 3A title in 2015.
Liddell broke with a recent trend of the area’s top basketball talent staying close to home.
Last week, Vashon senior guard Mario McKinney Jr. verbally committed to Mizzou. McKinney joined East St. Louis’s Jeremiah Tilmon, Belleville East’s Javon Pickett and Whitfield’s Torrence Watson as locals who picked the Tigers.
Former Edwardsville point guard and Illinois Mr. Basketball 2017 Mark Smith signed with Illinois before he transferred to Mizzou in the spring.
Althoff graduate Jordan Goodwin and Webster Groves’ Carte’Are Gordon signed with SLU.
Liddell was recognized for his outstanding junior season by being named the Post-Dispatch All-Metro boys basketball co-player of the year, Illinois Mr. Basketball and the Illinois Gatorade Player of the Year. He’s the top-ranked recruit in Illinois according to ESPN and 247sports. He falls between No. 43 and 48 nationally, according to various recruiting publications and sites.
Liddell is the Maroons’ career leading scorer and has the top spot in blocked shots, too. What makes Liddell stand out are things that don’t show up in the box score but in the locker room.
“I think the thing that separates EJ is he’s probably the most well-respected teammate you have,” West coach Joe Muniz said. “A lot of times your best players aren’t always your best teammates and he’s probably one of the best teammates you could possibly have.”
West is 52-11 in the last two seasons. It will have a significant target on its back this winter as the reigning state champion and having Mr. Basketball for one more run.
West will play in the Washington (Ill.) Tournament of Champions, from Nov. 20-24, and the Bass Pro Tournament of Champions, from Jan. 17-19 in Springfield, Mo.
Liddell said announcing his commitment now will clear the way for him and the Maroons to focus on what matters most.
“I just have to keep a level head,” Liddell said. “My main thing is winning so if I win I’ll get all those (awards) plus more.”