Ohio State responded to a gut-wrenching loss at Rutgers by tightening the defensive vice on Michigan and riding E.J. Liddell to a crucial road victory.
Ann Arbor, MI – Chris Holtmann had reason to pound the table in anger after Ohio State blew an eight-point lead in the final three minutes and lost at Rutgers on Wednesday, but he instead held his temper in check.
Finally, Saturday, it boiled over at Michigan, but not in response to another OSU loss.
“Will somebody, please, somebody outside the people who follow our program start talking about E.J. as a player-of-the-year in this league,” Holtmann said of junior forward E.J. Liddell. “He is deserving. He is deserving to be in that conversation as a player-of-the-year.”
It’s not that Liddell needs more nights like his 28-point, five-rebound, three-block effort in the Buckeyes’ 68-57 win over UM. It’s that he needs his teammates to play better around him.
Whatever star power Liddell lacks is more related to the often-deficient effort Ohio State (14-6, 7-4) has offered on the road.
The collapse at Rutgers was the freshest, and most egregious, but OSU also sleep-walked through road losses at Indiana and Wisconsin, and let a late lead evaporate in losing to Florida on a neutral court at the buzzer.
Whatever bedevils the Buckeyes away from home didn’t bite them last night, and won’t for awhile, as they face Minnesota on Tuesday, Iowa on Saturday and Indiana on Feb. 21…all at home.
That will make four games in 10 days, similar to the gauntlet Michigan was trying to run with its third game in five days, hoping for a second straight win over a ranked opponent.
But while the Wolverines throttled No. 3 Purdue, 82-58, on Thursday, they never led against OSU in the second half, probably because they shot 4-of-17 from three-point range after going 12-of-21 three days earlier.
Michigan’s willingness to launch from long range played into its attempting only a half-dozen free throws, something head coach Juwan Howard called, “alarming.”
Howard meant that as a slight toward the officials, who assessed him a technical with 39.6 seconds left and Ohio State in front, 64-54.
Liddell bagged both freebies, completing an 11-for-11 night at the line which helped OSU go 16-of-18 overall.
Clearly, he’s willing and able to battle for his points, rebounds and blocks, which is why it frustrates Holtmann that Liddell doesn’t get mentioned as often as Purdue’s Jaden Ivey, Illinois Kofi Cockburn or Wisconsin’s Johnny Davis in the league’s player-of-the-year speculation.
“I don’t hear his name mentioned,” Holtmann said. “I don’t know why I don’t hear his name mentioned, OK? Granted, we have to keep winning. We have to win more, whatever. But he has to be mentioned in that conversation.”
Until Ohio State overtakes, or pulls aside, Illinois, Wisconsin and Purdue, Liddell is likely to remain a background candidate.
While he is fourth in the league in scoring, tied for first in blocks and 11th in rebounding, the 7-0, 270-pound Cockburn is second in scoring and first in rebounding.
Liddell’s only head-to-head matchup with Cockburn is coming on Feb. 24 at Illinois, but there’s little doubt Liddell won the comparative round one against Michigan seven-footer Hunter Dickinson.
Dickinson primarily guarded Zed Key and Kyle Young, leaving Liddell to abuse 6-11, five-star freshman power forward Moussa Diabate.
“They were playing me one-on-one,” Liddell said. “I haven’t seen that a lot this year. I was just doing what I usually do. I didn’t force anything. As they kept playing me one-on-one, I just tried to play my normal game and get to my spots.”
A slow start, 1-for-5 shooting at the outset, vanished with Liddell making seven of his next 12 attempts.
Both he and Young maneuvered around Dickinson to score early in the second half, and Malaki Branham sliced into the lane for a pair of jumpers, helping OSU expand its 33-30 margin to 43-36.
Cedric Russell, playing extended minutes with Meechie Johnson unavailable due to an ankle injury suffered at Rutgers, then bombed a deep three from well beyond the top of the key as Dickinson closed out late.
That sent OSU’s lead to 10 points and highlighted Russell’s 12-point effort on 5-of-8 shooting over 20 minutes.
“It was a collective effort from a lot of guys,” Holtmann said. “We responded, obviously, from a gut punch the other night. I didn’t know if we’d win or not, but I felt like we would respond the right way because of the leadership of our group.”
Its three upcoming home games against teams .500 or below in the conference give OSU the chance to break from the four-way tie in the loss column it now shares, one-game behind league-leading Illinois.
No question, bouncing back from Rutgers felt good, and not just because of who it came against.
“Some road wins mean a little more than others,” Holtmann said, alluding to the OSU-Michigan rivalry that, while a fraction of the football equivalent, still matters to the fan base. “We know that. If you’re at our place, bottom line, you know that, right?
“…I know, everybody thought the world was coming to an end, after we lost the game the other day. ‘We’ve got bad players and a terrible head coach.’…all that nonsense.
“The deal is, stay in the moment and find a way to continue to get better and improve day-by-day. That’s what we tried to do and we’ll see if we can continue to do that on Tuesday.”