As of now, Ohio State coaches, players, and fans are all in wait-and-see mode regarding Zed Key’s injury. The Bay Shore, New York native rolled his ankle during the second half at Maryland, and Chris Holtmann has not given an estimated return date for the Buckeyes’ starting big man. Guard Meechie Johnson suffered a similar injury earlier this season, causing him to miss two games (10 days). If Key’s injury is of the same severity, we might not see him until the Big Ten Tournament... and that could be a good thing.
In case I needed to clarify: I would never wish injury upon any athlete, let alone a Buckeye. And certainly not an individual with the attitude and spirit of Key. He is incredibly easy to root for. Furthermore, after two humbling defeats in a row, the team could use him on the floor. So if Zed is back against Michigan State, that would be great. I love watching him play, and the team needs all hands on deck to stop their current slide. But sometimes, when a player is forced to sit, it can be of some benefit to both player and team. Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud is a recent example.
We now know that Stroud separated the AC joint in his right shoulder against Minnesota. It clearly bothered him for a number of weeks after, leading to Ryan Day’s decision to sit him against Akron. After a week’s rest, Stroud returned as a superhero. He was a more accurate passer, but even more important than that, he was playing with increased confidence. Not having to worry about an injury will do that for an athlete.
Could he have battled through it? Maybe. Did Coach Day question his toughness or ability to do so? Absolutely not. Day had to make what he felt was the best decision for all parties. Some (regretful now, I’m sure) OSU fans were even calling for Stroud to be benched prior to the Akron game, so this could have added fuel to the fire. However, Day was steadfast in his support of Stroud, and felt that a one-game absence would benefit all. While certainly not an apples-to-apples comparison, Holtmann is now faced with a similar decision.
Stroud is not Key, and Akron’s football team is not Michigan State or TTUN’s basketball team, but there are parallels. As unlikely as it may have been, a loss against Akron would have been a death blow to the Ohio State football team. The possibility of Holtmann’s group losing to both basketball teams up north is real, and doing so could further tank their seeding for the Big Ten (and/or NCAA) Tournament. In both instances, there were plenty of games yet to be played, but you see where I am going here.
Holtmann, Key, and others should fight any urge to rush the big man back. Losses to Maryland and Nebraska might tempt all involved to make a rash decision, but Key’s health takes precedent. While not suggesting (at all) that Holtmann or the team would do anything to put that in jeopardy, I’m sure pressure is being felt. But poor execution and lazy defense are primarily to blame for the last two losses — not one or two injuries.
Zed is likely pushing for a quick return to the lineup, perhaps to the point of annoyance — he seems like the kind of guy who would play on one leg if you let him. But in my humble opinion, the team should let him rest as long as possible. The earliest the Buckeyes would play in the Big Ten Tournament is March 10th. If they can get their act together, they still have a shot at the double-bye, pushing their first game back by one day. Either date would be nearly two weeks out from the date of the initial injury, and any additional time could prove to be beneficial.
My reasoning? Key has struggled as of late. And Ohio State has played a lot of basketball, in a short period of time. Whether it be foul trouble, fatigue, or a good old-fashioned slump, the last six games have not been his best. Since back-to-back double-digit scoring outputs in early February, Key has averaged 4.8 points and 3.8 rebounds per game. He is shooting just 44% over that six-game span, including 0-for-4 before exiting the Maryland game with injury. Compare those numbers to the first 10 games of the season (which included victories over Duke and Wisconsin). November and December combined look like this: 10.4 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 62% from the field. It’s not as if the schedule was that much easier — I just told you the Buckeyes beat Duke and Wisconsin during that stretch. Xavier, Seton Hall, and Florida were also on the early slate.
Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski on Zed Key’s performance Tuesday.— Lantern Sports (@LanternSports) December 2, 2021
“Very methodical and powerful.”: pic.twitter.com/l9haAvgJUb
While Key has not been at his best during the final weeks of conference play, Kyle Young arguably has. Ohio State would not have upset Illinois without him, and the team can use his strong play to its advantage... provided he is able to recover from last night’s illness. The Buckeyes are not toast without Key on the floor (even though they looked like it against Nebraska), because they have an experienced leader coming on at the right time. You are going to have ebbs and flows, and players need to be able to complement each other. When the Buckeyes have needed Young the most, he has stepped up — the way Key did against an outstanding Duke team. This could be his opportunity to reset, and get ready to raise the roof again in March.
Ohio State does not need Zed Key to be Superman, but they do need the finger guns to come out. They have been holstered as of late. The Buckeyes have been inconsistent on the offensive end in February, and I don’t think it’s any coincidence that Key has been as well. In the two recent losses in which he played, he totaled seven points on five shots, and played 27 combined minutes (the injury was a factor). He is much better than that, but the recent results have just not been there.
Without Key’s inside presence, teams have jammed up the middle and allocated additional resources to stopping E.J. Liddell and Malaki Branham. OSU cannot get it done with two guys, but Key has shown the ability to be a third scorer. Get them all in a rhythm, with a few outside shots from others and the defensive intensity of Young and Jamari Wheeler, and they’ve shown that they can be dangerous.
Here’s hoping that (first and foremost) Zed Key gets healthy. As Buckeye fans, we feed off his energy, and I believe that the team does as well. Beyond that, we’re hopeful for his return to form. Key can be an interior scoring presence, and has done so against one of the best teams in the country. His rebounding is another bonus. Ohio State can make a run in March; I’m willing to go out on a limb and say it. In order to make that run, the Buckeyes need contributions from all able bodies. If Zed is not currently able, then I hope he sits. Let him rest and recover, because a healthy Key is... key.