The weekly City/Suburban Hoops Report Three-Pointer from Peoria touches on the state’s biggest star, Belleville West’s EJ Liddell, Evanston’s forward-thinking regarding it basketball program and the celebration of southern Illinois basketball.
Following a second straight state championship, maybe the legacy of Belleville West’s EJ Liddell will be fully recognized, appreciated and remembered.
Liddell’s impact on the game has been unmatched the past two seasons. There is his versatile scoring, including range out to the three-point line and his advanced feel, footwork and soft hands around the basket. He’s a rebounding machine and an underrated passer. The 6-7, 225-pounder is a disruptive force defensively as blocking and altering shots is second nature.
The Ohio State recruit scored just over a whopping 2,500 career points also joined an illustrious short list of state greats.
Since the arrival of state player rankings decades ago, there have only been four players in Illinois history to be the top-ranked player in their respective class and win multiple state championships. Now there are five.
The list starts with LaPhonso Ellis of East St. Louis Lincoln, who won back-to-back titles in 1987 and 1988. Peoria Central’s Shaun Livingston won a pair in 2003 and 2004. The Simeon duo of Derrick Rose and Jabari Parker won two and four titles, respectively.
Selfishly, the only downer from his fabulous career is that he wasn’t a regular attraction for all of us in the Chicago area to see.
But it’s also crazy to think how underrated and undervalued Liddell was early on in his high school career, both locally and nationally. I touched on that a little over a year ago as Belleville West was in the midst of making its trip to Peoria in this story last March.
There has always been so much substance to Liddell’s game, demeanor and makeup as a player.
Lost in Evanston’s run to a state runner-up finish and all the success the Wildkits have enjoyed in recent years is the vision and commitment of the ETHS athletic program.
When the basketball job opened up nearly a decade ago, Evanston’s administration, including athletic director Chris Livatino, didn’t settle. The proud, tradition-rich basketball program was an attractive position, but the administration made a concerted effort at the time to fill the basketball coaching position with one of the best young coaches in the state.
Mike Ellis was part of a high school basketball hotbed in Peoria, where he led Peoria Richwoods to six regionals titles, three sectional championships and a pair of second-place state finishes in seven years. Evanston targeted the accomplished and respected Ellis and the hire has paid huge dividends.
Evanston has won four sectional titles since Ellis took over in 2010, including an average of 25 wins a year over the past six years. Plus, the Wildkits have third-place and second-place state hardware in the trophy case.
Simply put, Ellis has become the most successful coach in the storied history of Evanston basketball.
The southern part of the state flexed its muscle this March.
A pair of St. Louis area Metro East teams from the same conference won state titles as Belleville West and East St. Louis captured Class 4A and 3A championships, respectively. This is the first time since the arrival of the four-class system where a Chicago area school didn’t win a state championship.
Plus, Nashville, which is 40 miles southeast of Belleville, finished second in the state in Class 2A.
Belleville Althoff and star Jordan Goodwin were a Class 3A monster in reaching the state championship game in 2015 and 2016, claiming a title in 2016. But there wasn’t a Class 4A running-mate from the southern part of the state to join them in Class 4A in either of those years.
And while Liddell has been a household name in Illinois prep hoops, Peoria was also a stage for one of the state’s overlooked stars to be seen — from southern Illinois. Terrence Hargrove, a physically gifted 6-7 forward from East St. Louis, was terrific. In two wins he scored 51 points, pulled down 22 rebounds and blocked nine shots.
Hargrove has been among the City/Suburban Hoops Report’s top five prospects in Illinois and is headed to Saint Louis next season.