Illini remain all in on Liddell

Illini remain all in on Liddell

CHAMPAIGN — Illinois coaches Brad Underwood and Jamall Walker had courtside seats for E.J. Liddell’s dominant super-sectional performance. Kansas State coach Bruce Weber had a high five for the Class of 2019 prospect as he left the Redbird Arena court.

Underwood was in attendance again Saturday in Peoria — with assistant Chin Coleman this time — as Liddell led Belleville West to a Class 4A state championship.

The Illini remain in dogged pursuit of Liddell. They’re not alone. The 6-foot-7, 228-pound forward has 11 total Division I offers, but there hasn’t been much movement on his recruitment thus far.

By his choice.

“Everything is still going steady,” Liddell said. “I’m not putting anybody above anybody else right now.”

Still, Illinois has the longest relationship with the four-star forward. The Illini were his first offer in June 2016 under former coach John Groce, but Liddell has maintained his relationship with Walker as he’s also gotten to know Underwood the past year.

“They text me and call me all the time, and they came down to my school a couple times just to talk,” Liddell said. “They’re just trying to get to know me as best as possible. (Underwood) wants his recruits. He really wants to win — that’s his thing. He says he wants me because I’m a winner.”

That foundation could help Illinois moving forward, as the interest in Liddell could seriously increase this spring and summer. Currently ranked No. 42 nationally in the 2019 class by Rivals — and No. 52 by 247Sports — Liddell will return to the Nike EYBL in April with Bradley Beal Elite. 

This time Liddell will be more of a centerpiece player after playing up an age group last year for a Bradley Beal Elite team that was built around Class of 2018 five-star point guard and Vanderbilt signee Darius Garland. Even filling more of a role player spot, Liddell still averaged 9.5 points and 4.2 rebounds on the EYBL circuit and upped his game at Peach Jam in July 2017.

More eyes will be on Liddell this April.

“I could see people saying, ‘Wow, I didn’t realize he could do all these things,’” Belleville West coach Joe Muniz said. “It has nothing to do with he couldn’t do it (last spring). E.J.’s about doing whatever his role is on the team that’s best for his team to win.

“Last year the Bradley Beal team had a great point guard and had great players. They needed him to service a role. He was a defensive player, rebounder and shot blocker. He would score off Darius Garland’s ability to penetrate and dump. I think he’ll have more of an expanded role.”

Muniz said the parts of Liddell’s game that drew more interest this season at Belleville West were his ability to put the ball on the floor and shoot from three-point range. Neither was something he showed much of on the EYBL circuit last year, but the Maroons often got the ball in his hands at the top of the key this season. 

Liddell finished his state championship season averaging 20.8 points, 8.2 rebounds, 5.9 blocks and 2.8 assists, and he shot 58 percent overall and 35 percent from three-point range. 

“He’s developed that game beyond the arc,” Muniz said. “He’s still got to improve his ball handling, but his ball handling has improved. He’s able to catch, rip and go by people.”

Liddell will team up with fellow Illinois recruiting targets like Vashon (Mo.) point guard Mario McKinney Jr. and Normal West forward Francis Okoro this season on the EYBL. Both he and Okoro played up an age group together last year.

“Playing with Francis again, that’s my guy,” Liddell said. “That will be great. I don’t see how you could stop us, honestly.”