Sitting in his postgame press conference, Michigan coach Juwan Howard had nothing but praise for Ohio State forward E.J. Liddell.
When asked how Liddell differentiated his game from the plethora of talented bigs Howard has seen in his time at the helm of the Wolverines, Howard gave a laundry list of ways Liddell can beat a defense:
Getting to his left shoulder with ease. A multitude of post moves to create space. The variety of ways he can attack the basket in the pick-and-pop game.
Saturday night, the Michigan men’s basketball team was on the wrong end of Liddell’s entire arsenal. While the Wolverines often forced Liddell to take tough shots, they ultimately didn’t have an answer for him. Liddell’s 28 points led the Buckeyes to a 68-57 victory.
“The game plan for him was (to) just make him make tough twos, and that’s really what he did,” graduate guard DeVante’ Jones said. “I feel like he had a couple open shots that just made the basket a little bit more wider for him and I think we just made some costly mistakes, but I gave Liddell credit. He’s a very good player.”
Liddell was always going to get his points. As Howard said, he’s nearly impossible to shut down, and few teams have been able to successfully hold him in check this year — Liddell has yet to score in single digits in a game this season. But limiting his chances would have helped mitigate Michigan’s offensive struggles.
The Wolverines didn’t fully fail in that regard; Liddell wasn’t particularly efficient from the field, shooting 8-for-17. They never double-teamed him, instead favoring single coverage to avoid kick outs and open 3-pointers. That being said, he still had to work hard for his baskets and knock down tough shots, as Jones said. Against a player as good as Liddell, though, even forcing tough shots sometimes doesn’t get the job done.
“Liddell is unique in a lot of ways,” Howard said. “And what makes him so efficient is he really does a good job of getting to his spot. And he’s also patient with it as well.”
Michigan’s costly mistake was allowing Liddell to go to the free-throw line 11 times, where he made all 11. Freshman forward Moussa Diabate had difficulty guarding Liddell without fouling at times, forcing him to defend with less physicality to avoid fouling out.
“It kind of took some of the aggressiveness away from our defender and gave more aggressiveness towards the offensive player,” Howard said. “And Liddell’s smart, and he took advantage of what was given to him.”
Liddell shined on the interior for the game’s entirety, but for much of it, he failed to show off his range. He missed his first four attempts from deep. His lone make, though, proved to be a devastating blow to the Wolverines. Down by five with just over four minutes remaining, a miscommunication in zone left Liddell open in the corner with sophomore center Hunter Dickinson reluctant to close out due to a fear of leaving the paint open. Liddell made him play, canning the 3-pointer and stifling any Michigan momentum.
Liddell’s versatility makes stopping him a losing battle. As the Wolverines saw first-hand, even forcing tough shots isn’t always good enough to limit his damage. He’s too good of a player.
While Michigan was able to hold the rest of the Buckeyes relatively in check, it was negated by the Wolverines sputtering offense. All Ohio State needed was Liddell, and once again, he delivered.