With the Buckeye basketball season on hold, as we wait for the COVID-19 “All Clear,” I have a chance to finish up my mid-term examination of the OSU team. I wrote previously about the backcourt – particularly about the newcomers there. And I took a look at E.J. Liddell on the occasion of his 21st birthday. That leaves the other starter: Zed Key.
If you look at the results of Ohio State basketball games so far this season, I think that you’ll agree that the two biggest wins are against #1 Duke and against #22 Wisconsin. The victory over the Blue Devils was a tight one, while the Bucks blew the Badgers out of the arena. Both games were played at home, but one other common point is the play of Zed Key. Arguably, these two games were Key’s best so far in his career, and his quality play was a strong reason for the two Ws.
Long Island Lutheran
Key played his prep ball at Long Island Lutheran High School. And his teams there were good. During Key’s four years of high school, LIL posted a 95-10 record and was ranked #10 in the country in Key’s senior year. Although he led the team in scoring (18 points per game, with a dazzling 68% field goal percentage) and rebounding (8.7 boards per game), the 6-8 post man wasn’t the star attraction on the team.
No, the acknowledged star of that high school team was guard Andre Curbelo. Yes, you’ve heard of him, since he now plays for the Illinois Fighting Illini. Curbelo, as a high school junior, averaged 15.5 points, eight rebounds, four steals, and nine assists per game. That’s correct – nine assists. The following year Curbelo scored 16.7 points a game, while collecting 7.6 boards, 3.6 steals, and 8.1 assists per game average. His speed, his control of the game, his versatility made Curbelo the top player in New York and earned him a third-team spot on MaxPreps All American team. Key was highly recruited, but he was second-fiddle to Curbelo.
Key’s freshman season
Neither Key nor Curbelo started for their team last season. Curbelo was a top sixth man for the Illini, and Key came off the bench for the Buckeyes and averaged 5.2 points and 3.4 rebounds per game. I liked Key last year. I thought that he showed a great deal of promise, although he was sometimes slow to get in defensive position, and his hands weren’t as soft as one would hope. Nonetheless, he was big and enthusiastic, and he gave the 2020-21 Bucks a different look when he was in the game.
The 2021-22 season
This year’s a different story. Zed Key has started eight of the ten Buckeye games, coming off the bench in the Seton Hall and Florida games. He’s averaging 22.5 minutes in coach Chris Holtmann’s rotation. His scoring average of 10.4 points per game is second only to E.J. Liddell’s 20.6. Key is third on the team (behind Liddell and Kyle Young) in rebounding with 5.4 per game.
During the recent Wisconsin game, the TV announcers seemed amazed that Key had never taken a three-point shot in his Ohio State career. It’s not surprising, especially if you’ve seen him struggle at the free throw line. No, Zed’s game is down low. He can back his man down toward the basket, then turn over either shoulder and shoot with either hand from close range. He gets up well, too, to finish an alley-oop or for a two-handed slam that will energize the home crowd. The TV guys might be right that Key would need an outside shot (like Liddell’s) if he aspires to the pros. Because, let’s face it, a 6-8 post man would have a hard time in the NBA.
But let me return to my original point about Key: Ohio State plays best when Key plays his best game. Against Duke, Key recorded a career-best 20 points, on 8/15 shooting from the floor. He pulled down only three rebounds in the contest, but there’s no doubt that his presence down low helped Liddell to get 14 boards that game. Against the Badgers, Key had 14 points, on 5/7 shooting. He also had nine rebounds, two assists, and a block. I could feel a couple of his slam dunks from my living room, a thousand miles away.
What, exactly, does Zed Key contribute to the Buckeyes’ efforts in these big games? First, he brings an energy, an enthusiasm that is infectious to his teammates and to the crowd. College basketball is a game of runs, of momentum, of emotion. Key’s an emotional guy.
Second, he’s a force – both offensively and defensively – near the basket. That’s a different game than the other forwards have. Liddell can play low, but he’s often above the key. Justin Ahrens is primarily a perimeter player, a three-point shooter. Young is a ferocious rebounder, but he, too, has become more of a scoring threat from long range. Zed Key is down low, pushing guys around. Thus, he can make teams pay if they move off of him to stop a driving guard or choose to double Liddell low. On defense, Key can clog the middle, can block a shot or two.
Third, he really fills in the frontcourt rotation nicely. Each of the four forwards is different from the other three; as a consequence, they present matchup and personnel problems for opponents. It will be interesting to see if there’s a change in dynamic when Justice Sueing returns to action. Key plays much bigger than he is. As I said, he can jump, and his arm length would make buying him a Christmas sweater quite a challenge.
Fourth, and this might be most important, he takes scoring and rebounding pressure off of Liddell. Liddell dominates the Buckeye team stats, almost as if he’s a one-man show. When Key’s at his best, Liddell knows that he doesn’t have to do it all. He can feed assists, he can take a breather on the bench.
Zed Key has developed a great deal between his freshman and his sophomore seasons. He’ll continue to get better and, I think, continue to increase his role on the team.