The metro-east area is jam-packed with talent, and Belleville West 2019 forward E.J. Liddell is not only the best sophomore in the area but one of the top in-state targets in the class for Illini hoops.
Illinois made sure to be the first program to offer him a scholarship in June, and they hosted him as a recruiting guest at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis for the Braggin' Rights game last week along with Javon Pickett and Mark Smith. The Illini had them spotted up in the first row next to the bench.
"This feels great. I've never been courtside watching any team in any arena," Liddell told IlliniInquirer.com at the game. "Watching the Illini, they're really getting after it right now. I like how they get the ball in the post."
Liddell enjoyed watching the game with Pickett and Smith, who are conference foes on the court but friends off it.
"Hanging out with Javon, he's real cool and real humble. When he talks about basketball, he asks about me and other people too," Liddell said. "And Mark, he's funny. That dude is funny."
He likes their games as well.
"Javon, I like how intense he is. He gets after it," Liddell said. "Mark, he gets to the rim with aggression and he can shoot the outside shot too."
Pickett had some good words for him. The first commit in the 2017 class spent time recruiting other players to join him, especially five-star East St. Louis signee Jeremiah Tilmon. He said he's looking to continue the metro-east run with Smith and Liddell.
"We're trying to add them to the run. Two elite players right here next to me. They're real good athletes. They're in the same conference as I am, and it's always great playing against them," Pickett said. "Just trying to get them to Illinois with me. We can go somewhere far with them."
The Illini coaching staff has been showing Liddell plenty of love too. Liddell was on campus for visits in June and October. Illini assistant Jamall Walker spent a good amount of time watching Liddell on the AAU circuit over the summer, and John Groce was in the stands earlier this month for his game against Pickett.
Liddell said his relationship with the staff is continuing to grow.
"Coach Groce, I can really connect to him a lot. We talk about different things besides basketball," Liddell said. "He and Coach Walker, they both really know me. They know my family. They know everybody."
Another thing that the home-state program knows well is Liddell's talent and upside. He had 25 points in front of Groce in his team's one-point loss against Pickett. Liddell also posted 20 points in a loss against East St. Louis, as he outscored Tilmon (16 points).
He played a significant role (15 points) in West's big win over Smith and Edwardsville, who was undefeated at the time.
"Last year, we lost to them three times. So that was our goal to beat them," Liddell said. "It was exciting."
Liddell has played most of his school-ball career in the paint, and he's done it with a high level of success. He averaged 16 points and eight rebounds as a freshman. But at 6-foot-7, 216 pounds, he has looked to expand his game.
"I think my outside shot has gotten better and putting the ball on the ground when I get it on the perimeter," Liddell said. "And I think my left hand has gotten better too."
"I play mostly on the inside right now, but my coach wants me to play outside too and take people off the dribble."
Liddell showed that ability with the St. Louis Eagles over the summer, and the program's 17U coach is very excited about his future.
"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," Eagles coach Corey 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."
As of right now, Liddell has offers from Illinois, DePaul and SLU. Butler, Iowa and Kansas State have shown some interest as well.
The Illini will have a handful of scholarships to fill in the 2019 class, and Liddell is as big of a must-get in the state at this juncture.