The metro-east area has been a big focus for the Illini hoops program, and that will continue with Belleville West sophomore forward EJ Liddell being one of the top in-state targets on Illinois' radar in the 2019 class.
Liddell took an unofficial visit to Champaign on Saturday, which was his second trip to campus in the last four months. He attended the Illini football game against Purdue at Memorial Stadium, and he had fun hanging out with the staff.
"It went well. I enjoyed going to the football game and sitting with the coaches and talking about different stuff -- not just basketball," Liddell said. "Got to connect with them a lot."
He also got to check out hoops practice before the game, and he liked what he saw.
"It was very intense and they were getting at it every play out there," Liddell said. "I think the team can be very good if everybody is healthy."
Overall, Liddell is starting to get to know his home-state school pretty well early on in the process.
"I like the campus. I love the atmosphere. I like the players and how they handle themselves. I like the coaches and how they connect with you," he said. "It's been great so far."
Liddell is an important recruit for Illinois, even though he is just a sophomore. He is a downstate target with considerable upside, toughness and a high motor. The Illini made sure to be the first to offer him a scholarship in June, and Jamall Walker and John Groce have continued to make him feel like a priority.
"Coach (Walker) told me they've been thinking about me a lot," Liddell said. "They had a meeting on Thursday to talk about all their recruits, and he said I'm a big priority for him because he likes my intensity."
Illinois will try to keep the Belleville pipeline flowing, as Belleville East product Malcolm Hill is a Big Ten Player of the Year candidate and Belleville East senior Javon Pickett is an All-State commit to the program.
"My dad knows Malcolm's dad really well so I think we have a good connection," Liddell said. "And me and Javon have been working out together a lot lately."
"He's very intense. He gets a lot of rebounds. His motor is very high. He goes up and down the court, can dribble the ball, shoot and all that."
Currently, Liddell stands at 6-foot-7, 216 pounds. He played on the interior primarily as a freshman, and he did so with strong results -- averaging around 18 points and six rebounds per game. But Liddell sees himself now as a mix between a three and a four. He said he's worked a lot on his moves off the bounce, his stepback game and his outside shooting.
St. Louis Eagles coach Corey Frazier talked about Liddell's development after AAU concluded this summer.
"I think he's in transition from playing with his back to the basket to being a good 3/4 kid. People don't give him credit for it, but that kid can flat out shoot the ball from the perimeter," Frazier said. "He's aggressive. He blocks shots. He does a lot of good things around the basket. You're not going to stop him once he gets his handles right."
With his game transforming, Liddell said he really likes to watch Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green.
"He can play inside, shoot the three, bring the ball up the court. I like the style he plays at," he said.
As for his recruitment, Liddell also has an offer from DePaul. He said programs such as Bradley, Butler, Iowa, Kansas State and Missouri State have been in to see him at open gym too -- along with Illinois and DePaul.
SLU had Liddell on campus for a visit a few weeks ago. He said he has invites to go see Iowa, Kansas State and Missouri State.
The Illini have done well here so far, and they hope their early effort will lead to a commitment in what will be an important 2019 group.