Since Cuonzo Martin became coach of the Missouri men's basketball team after having the same option at Illinois, his childhood team, the Braggin’ Rights rivalry between the two schools has intensified.
Just ask EJ Liddell.
The top recruit for both schools in the 2019 class, the 6-foot-7, do-it-all forward said he can’t go on social media anymore without finding himself in the middle of an argument between the two fan bases.
“I’ve seen it with my Twitter notifications,” Liddell said. “I get people arguing under my pictures all the time. I just laugh. It’s hilarious. That rivalry, it’s been a rivalry for a long time but it’s got a lot of attention since a lot of Illinois guys went to Mizzou and Mizzou guys went to Illinois.”
Liddell is taking the attention from both schools in stride. He continues to pile up offers following a strong performance during the opening session of the Nike EYBL season.
The Belleville native picked up offers from Georgetown, Connecticut, Texas A&M and Louisville this past week. He averaged 10.8 points and 4.5 rebounds per game on a Bradley Beal Elite team that is loaded with local talent.
Liddell is playing alongside point guard Mario McKinney, center Francis Okoro and wing Terrence Hargrove, all of whom have been offered by Missouri.
Martin and assistant coach Chris Hollender were courtside for every one of Liddell’s games and were usually the first in the stands for the game.
An assistant coach from Northwestern saw that Hollender was the first coach in the stands Saturday morning. He remarked to Hollender that he thought his own entourage would be first to arrive.
Hollender's reply? “No chance.”
Liddell said he wants to wait until the end of the summer before developing a game plan for his recruitment. He recently had in-home visits with Ohio State, Northwestern, Kansas State and Illinois. He plans to take an unofficial visit to Iowa State this weekend on his way back from Indianapolis, where the EYBL season resumes on Friday.
“I just have to get a feel with the coach,” Liddell said. “I have to get to know them, they have to get to know me. I have to see where I fit in with the system.”
Missouri was unable to conduct an in-home visit with Liddell because it was out of allotted evaluations on him. NCAA rules allow a program to watch a player only so many times, and Missouri used its limit to observe Liddell leading Belleville West to its first Class 4A state title in the program’s 102nd year.
Liddell averaged 20.8 points, 8.2 rebounds and 2.8 assists for the 32-2 Maroons on his way to being named Mr. Basketball in Illinois and the state’s Gatorade Player of the Year. He also was a first-team all-state selection and the News-Democrat's Large-School Player of the Year.
“We all just kept playing together and got better every game,” Liddell said of the team’s run.
For his final AAU season, Liddell said he’s been working on his three-point shooting off the dribble and trying to perfect the shot-blocking that he has become known for.
Liddell had his fair share of blocks for Bradley Beal Elite last weekend but also showed his ability to shoot the three.
Joe Muniz, Liddell’s coach at Belleville West, previously said Liddell is a prototypical high-school shot-blocker but needs to work on keeping the ball inbound or deflecting it toward a teammate when doing so.
“He’s been telling me to do that, but when I see a block I just go up there and try to swat it as hard as I can,” Liddell said. “But if I can, I try to tip it to one of my teammates.”
Martin recently described Mizzou as positionless — a lineup of players who can play and guard multiple positions, and aren’t necessarily point guards or power forwards. College basketball continues to trend that way, after Villanova won the national title with a roster full of such players.
Liddell said finding a program that will utilize his versatility is a top priority.
“They just say I’m a ballplayer,” Liddell said. “They don’t give me a position because that’s not the game of basketball anymore. They say I can come in and play any position.”
As Liddell’s recruitment continues to go national, it appears Missouri and Illinois will be in it until the end.
And the Braggin’ Rights rivalry continues to gain steam. The Tigers recently added Illinois transfer Mark Smith, an Edwardsville graduate, alongside rising sophomore Jeremiah Tilmon, an East St. Louis graduate, and incoming freshman Javon Pickett, a Belleville East graduate, as former Fighting Illini pledges who are now in Columbia.
Liddell played against all three players in high school as an underclassman and finds it amazing that a program has three players from the same conference on one team.
“Those guys are really great players and all came out of the metro-east area," he said. "Playing against them has made me a lot better.”
The next time Liddell plays with them, they could all be wearing the same uniform.