Belleville West senior EJ Liddell has been at the center of a social media tug-of-war between fans of the three colleges he identified as finalists to win his services on the basketball court next fall.
Their constant lobbying on behalf of their school was such that he eventually had to block all replies to his Twitter account.
But the top-ranked high school basketball player in Illinois, who received 19 scholarship offers in all, put all that banter to rest Monday when he gave a verbal commitment to attend Ohio State University in Columbus.
Listed as a four-star recruit, the No. 10 power forward and 48th-ranked player in the nation by 24/7 Sports, the 6-foot-7, 220-pound Liddell made the announcement surrounded by family and teammates at Buffalo Wild Wings in Belleville, blocks from the high school campus.
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“As a little kid, I always watched and followed Ohio State, but I thought I was going to be a football player. I imagined myself wearing an Ohio State football jersey,” he said. “Then when I became a basketball player, Ohio State was still the place.’’
The other two finalists on Liddell’s list were Illinois and Missouri, who have been in pursuit since he was a sophomore. The chance to play closer to home was appealing to his family and friends, but it was the rapport he built with the Illini and Tigers coaches that complicated his decision.
“It was hard because I had a lot of great options and I could have gone anywhere,” he said. “It was very difficult because I turned down my home state and the state next to us (Missouri). I’ve had relationships with the coaches for a long time and now I’m breaking bonds with them. It’s tough.’’
The weekend brought another complication to his decision. His grandfather on his mother’s side, John Rucker, died.
“My grandfather lived in the Chicago suburbs and I had a very close relationship with him. We went up to visit all the time,’’ Liddell said. “It was expected but still to know that you’re not going to be able to talk to them anymore that’s really difficult for everybody in my family.’’
The reigning Illinois Mr. Basketball had scholarship offers from schools such as Connecticut, DePaul, Georgetown, Florida, Marquette and Iowa.
In August, Liddell narrowed his choices to Illinois, Missouri, Ohio State, Kansas State and Wisconsin. A few weeks later, he canceled recruiting trips to Kansas State and Wisconsin, leaving a final three and igniting the speculation.
Liddell made his official visit to Ohio State on Aug. 31. Visits to Missouri (Sept. 7) and Illinois (Sept. 21) followed. He didn’t settle on the Buckeyes until Saturday.
“Ohio State has a winning program. They went to the NCAA tournament last year. They were picked to finish near the bottom of the Big 10 and I think they finished second and won 25-26 games,’’ Liddell said. “Coach (Chris) Holtmann was the Big Ten Coach of the Year and he’s great with versatile forwards. That’s what he’s known for.
“He was at Butler before Ohio State and they were a winning program. I like to win.’’
Liddell is the third top 50 player committed to Ohio State for the 2019-2020 season.
Holtmann, who took over for longtime head coach Thad Matta and led the Buckeyes to a 25-9 season a year ago, received a commitment from Alonzo Gaffney in April. A 6-9, 190-pound small forward from Brewster Academy in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, Gaffney is the 39th-ranked player and eighth-ranked small forward in the nation.
Earlier this summer, the Buckeyes received a commitment from the second-ranked point guard and No. 24 overall player in the nation in 6-foot-1 DJ Carton of Bettendorf High School in Iowa.
“I know both of those guys. I got to know them at the top 100 camp in Virginia earlier this summer and then I played with Alonzo at the skills academy,’’ Liddell said. “We’ve been texting back and forth. They are both great players.’’
Liddell’s father, Eric is a former college football player who attended Illinois State University in the late 1980’s. On the Redbirds coaching staff was current Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer.
In helping to lead Belleville West (32-2) to its first state championship, Liddell averaged 20.3 points, 8.2 rebounds, 5.9 blocked shots and 2.8 assists per game. The Maroons won the Class 4A state title, defeating Chicago Whitney Young 60-56 in overtime in the championship game.
He was the Gatorade Illinois Player of the Year and Belleville News-Democrat Large School Player of the Year. With his senior season still ahead of him, Liddell already is the all-time leader in Belleville West history in points (1,759) and blocked shots (356). He has a career scoring average of 19.1 points per game.
A three-time all-Southwestern Conference first team selection, Liddell is a two-time Illinois Basketball Coaches Association (IBCA) first team all-state selection and was an Associated Press first team all-state player as a junior.