EJ Liddell, who powered Belleville West to the Class 4A state championship, was named Mr. Basketball in Illinois on Thursday.
It's the top individual award handed out to a player. Last year, Edwardsville's Mark Smith, also of the Southwestern Conference, earned the honor. Liddell is just the second junior in 38 years to win the honor, following Jabari Parker in 2012. Parker also won in 2013.
Liddell, who amassed 432 points in the voting, finished ahead of Simeon's Talen Horton-Tucker (335), Morgan Park's Ayo Dosunmu (290), Hinsdale South's Zion Griffin (26) and Whitney Young's Javon Freeman (25).
"I wanted to jump up and try to do a back-flip. That's how excited I was," said Liddell, who was in English class when he learned the news. "I saw a Twitter notification about the Chicago (Tribune's) article. I clicked on it and saw me and Brea Beal got it. I was like, 'Wait, is this serious?' I looked at another article, from the BND, and I saw that I got it.
"I thought I was going to get it, but it usually goes to seniors. I'm so excited to get it."
The 6-foot-7 Liddell averaged 20.8 points, 8.2 rebounds, 5.9 blocks and 2.8 assists for the Maroons (32-2). He made 27 3-pointers and shot 79 percent from the free-throw line (227 of 288). West defeated Elgin Larkin 64-53 in the semifinals Friday and defending champion Whitney Young 60-56 in overtime in the title game Saturday at Carver Arena.
"The thing I don't think anybody realizes, even myself, is how big Chicago is, how important Chicago is and how this award usually stays in Chicago," Maroons coach Joe Muniz said. "Talen Horton-Tucker and Ayo and those other guys are really good players. To get that award over them, in the decisive manner EJ did, is a credit to him.
"He dominates a game, both offensively and defensively, like no other player I've ever seen. This is a once-in-a-lifetime player. As a coach, you dream about coaching a player of his caliber. All the attributes you would want in a kid, he's got them. For our community, for our school, this is unbelievable. ... For it to happen again in the Southwestern Conference is unprecedented."
The Mr. Basketball award is presented by the Chicago Tribune in conjunction with the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association.
Rock Island's Beal (255 points) was voted Ms. Basketball for the second straight year. Edwardsville senior Kate Martin, who will play basketball at Iowa, was fifth in the voting with 98 points.
Liddell and Beal will be honored May 5 at the annual IBCA Banquet at Redbird Arena in Normal.
Mr. and Ms. Basketball are voted on by coaches and media members in Illinois. All voters named their top-three choices, with five points awarded for a first-place vote, three for a second-place vote and one for a third-place vote.
Earlier in March, Liddell was named the Gatorade Player of the Year in Illinois.
"All of (the honors) are really great, but I feel like this (Mr. Basketball) award right here is one of the best awards in the country," Liddell said. "Bringing this back down here, and the state-championship trophy, means a lot to the Belleville area and Southern Illinois hoops because everybody in the Chicago area thinks they're almighty and stuff. But since we've got it back down here, it feels great."
Liddell had 41 points, 13 rebounds and 14 blocked shots in the state tournament. He set a Class 4A single-game tournament record when he had seven blocks against Elgin Larkin. He came back with seven more blocks against Whitney Young. The former record for most blocks in a Class 4A state-tournament game was four, accomplished many times.
Only three players have recorded more blocks in a game than Liddell in a state-tournament game: Providence Catholic's Walter Downing in 1978 (12), Effingham's Uwe Blab in 1980 (10) and East St. Louis Lincoln's LaPhonso Ellis in 1988 (nine).
"I left that place with no regrets," said Liddell, the son of Eric and Michelle Liddell. "I'm happy we brought this (trophy) back. A lot of people have been congratulating us. People have been really, really excited for us. The past five days have been amazing, honestly. Everybody's been telling me I've been doing so great.
"Since my freshman year, Coach Muniz has told me all the work is going to pay off. It's been paying off this whole entire year. If we wouldn't have had such a great season, I don't think I would have been getting all these different awards. It's really because of my teammates. They knew I was the best player on the team and they knew I was going to get all these awards, but they should be getting a bunch of awards, too, for helping me and helping the team win all this different kind of stuff."
Muniz echoed Liddell's sentiments.
"You try to gather your thoughts about what he just accomplished, and I think EJ said it best: Without our team's success, this award does not happen. That's what is in the front of my mind," Muniz said.
Liddell scored in double figures in 33 games, with a high of 35 points against College Park, Texas. He had at least 10 rebounds in 14 games, recording a high of 14 in three games — two against Edwardsville and one against Montgomery (Ala.) Carver. He had five games with at least 10 blocks, with a high of 13 against Belleville East.
Liddell became the career scoring leader at West with 1,759 points and set a single-season school scoring record with 708 points.
Liddell has 13 scholarship offers from Division I schools: Illinois, Missouri, Saint Louis University, Ohio State, Florida, Iowa, Iowa State, Marquette, DePaul, Kansas State, Illinois State, Northwestern and Southern Illinois University Carbondale.
Recruiting is expected to become more heated this summer as other prestigious programs make offers to Liddell.
"I hope it's not stressful at all," Liddell said. "I'm just going to enjoy it because I only get to pick one school. With me picking one school, I'm just going to take my time with it and enjoy all the coaches and get to know them."
Liddell was the centerpiece of a team that also featured seniors Malachi Smith and Curtis Williams, and juniors Keith Randolph Jr. and Lawrence Brazil III. The Maroons were 14-0 in the SWC and didn't lose to a team from Illinois.
"This has been one of the best years of my life," Liddell said. "We won the state championship and they'll be talking about that forever, but if I just keep working, it's going to get a lot better for me."
Liddell is looking ready for the next stage of recruiting.
"I've just got to stay humble and keep doing what I've been doing," Liddell said. "I'll be ranked as high as I want to be if I keep working at it, have a great summer and come back next year and try to repeat."
Liddell isn't sure when he will make a verbal commitment.
"I don't have a timetable at all, but if I feel a school is just right for me, I will commit," Liddell said.
Mr. Basketball finalists
In order of their finish, below are profiles of the remaining top-five vote-getters for Illinois' Mr. Basketball
School: Chicago Simeon
College: Iowa State
Numbers: 23 points, 9 rebounds, 6 assists, 2.1 blocks, 1 steal, 44 3-pointers, 46 percent FG, 33 percent 3FG, 84 percent FT
Team results: 28-3 (9-0 Public Red South-Central), advanced to Class 4A super-sectional, nationally ranked
Accomplishments: Sun-Times player of the year, All-Area, first-team All-City. Prep Hoops Illinois player of the year. MVP of Pontiac Holiday tournament, Penny Hardaway Classic. According to Simeon, in games against four top-five national teams, he averaged 21 points. McDonald’s All-American nominee. 852 total points.
School: Chicago Morgan Park
Numbers: 25.2 points, 7.4 rebounds, 7.3 assists, 3.04 steals, 1.5 blocks, 55 3-pointers, 61.8% percent FG, 49.75 percent 3FG, 82.3 percent FT
Team results: 23-9 (7-2 Public Red South-Central), advanced to Class 3A state tournament
Accomplishments: Sun-Times All-Area, first-team All-City. Will play in Jordan Brand Classic in New York. Games of 60, 52 and 42 points this season. All-Tournament at Tarkanian Classic in Las Vegas. 2017 Daily Southtown Player of the Year.
School: Hinsdale South
College: Iowa State
Numbers: 21.0 points, 9 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 1.3 steals, 1.2 blocks, 41 3-pointers, 55 percent FG, 33 percent 3FG, 61 percent FT
Team results: 21-7 (10-2 Western Suburban Gold champion), advanced to Class 4A regional final
Accomplishments: Sun-Times All-Area, Daily Herald DuPage County Player of the Year. McDonald’s All-American nominee. 1,116 total points. All-Tournament at York, Lyons.
School: Chicago Young
Numbers: 19.6 points, 5.9 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.6 steals, 63 percent FG, 24 percent 3FG, 54 percent FT
Team results: 27-7 (7-2 Red North-West), advanced to Class 4A state tournament with win against nationally ranked Simeon
Accomplishments:Sun-Times All-Area, first-team All-City. Gatorade player of the year finalist. Scored 665 points this season. MVP of Rockford Tip-Off Classic; All-Tournament at Proviso
Past Mr. Basketball winners
2017 — Mark Smith, Edwardsville
2016 — Charlie Moore, Morgan Park
2015 — Jalen Brunson, Stevenson
2014 — Jahlil Okafor, Whitney Young
2013 — Jabari Parker, Simeon
2012 — Jabari Parker, Simeon
2011 — Ryan Boatright, East Aurora, and Chasson Randle, Rock Island
2010 — Jereme Richmond, Waukegan
2009 — Brandon Paul, Warren
2008 — Kevin Dillard, Homewood-Flossmoor
2007 — Derrick Rose, Simeon
2006 — Jon Scheyer, Glenbrook North
2005 — Julian Wright, Homewood-Flossmoor
2004 — Shaun Livingston, Peoria
2003 — Shannon Brown, Proviso East
2002 — Dee Brown, Proviso East
2001 — Eddy Curry, Thornwood
2000 — Darius Miles, East St. Louis
1999 — Brian Cook, Lincoln
1998 — Frank Williams, Peoria Manual
1997 — Sergio McClain, Peoria Manual
1996 — Ronnie Fields, Farragut
1995 — Kevin Garnett, Farragut
1994 — Jarrod Gee, St. Martin de Porres
1993 — Rashard Griffith, King
1992 — Chris Collins, Glenbrook North
1991 — Howard Nathan, Peoria Manual
1990 — Jamie Brandon, King
1989 — Deon Thomas, Simeon
1988 — Eric Anderson, St. Francis de Sales
1987 — Marcus Liberty, King
1986 — Nick Anderson, Simeon
1985 — Ed Horton, Springfield Lanphier
1984 — Brian Sloan, McLeansboro
1983 — Marty Simmons, Lawrenceville
1982 — Bruce Douglas, Quincy
1981 — Walter Downing, Providence Catholic