Take a trip with me, folks... all the way back to 2021. Don’t worry, we’re not really going back. But this mental getaway won’t cost you any gas money, so indulge me.
It’s Christmas time, or New Year’s Eve, and all of us Ohio State basketball fans are excited for the upcoming slate. The program’s Covid pause is over, and the team gets Nebraska on Jan. 2. No problem, the Buckeyes will sweep that season series easily. Then they will roll over Indiana and Northwestern, before taking on Wisconsin. Sure, the Badgers are scrappy, but OSU already defeated them once — and they were projected to finish in the bottom half of the league. Put us down for another season sweep. Our guys should roll into Purdue on Jan. 30 with a stranglehold on the conference.
Well, you know what they say about the egg coming before your chickens hatch. One minute you’re daydreaming about cutting down nets, and the next, you’re catching an open hand from a fresh prince named Reality.
Ohio State was on the receiving end of a few slaps during Big Ten play — nine of them to be exact. All nine of their conference losses came after Jan. 5, and while there are a myriad of reasons (or excuses) as to why the Buckeyes struggled, specifically down the stretch, it is fair to say that injuries played a significant role.
Zed Key was one of the players who missed time, and even when he returned from his ankle injury, he did not look right for the entirety of March. Key’s absence or inability to play at 100 percent health coincided with significant struggles for OSU. The Buckeyes went 5-4 in his last nine games played, and 1-2 in the three February/March games he missed.
Key’s level of play was trending down prior to his injury; the ankle issue only exacerbated his late-season woes. But if Ohio State is going to bounce back and perhaps reach that elusive Sweet Sixteen, they will need the big man from Bay Shore at the peak of his powers. When he is on, Key is an effective low post banger and rebounder, with sneaky defensive chops. Despite playing primarily below the rim at 6-foot-8, he can be a double-double guy and third scoring option for the Buckeyes, as well as the interior defender they need.
Early season victories against Duke and Wisconsin are prime examples of how Key can impact winning. Against Final Four-bound Duke, Ohio State’s starting big man put up a career-high 20 points on 15 shots (also a career high). He was often guarded by Mark Williams, the Blue Devils’ best defender and a potential lottery pick in this year’s NBA Draft. Key was not intimidated, and took it to the 7-footer on multiple occasions.
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
Less than two weeks later, he bodied Tyler Wahl and Steven Crowl of Wisconsin, using his strong frame effectively. It was a more subdued scoring performance (13 points), but the soon-to-be OSU junior was hyper-efficient from the field and added nine rebounds by out-muscling certain Badgers. Key also did not turn the ball over in either game, proving to be the second-most important player in each of those victories. He led all Buckeyes in scoring against Duke, and picked up the slack for an injured Malaki Branham versus Wisconsin. As Key went, so did Ohio State.
To insinuate that Key was the captain that steered the ship is a little misleading, so let me pump the brakes on that. The Buckeyes’ success clearly hinged on the play of Branham and E.J. Liddell. But, Key did play at a very high level in both of the team’s signature victories. By the same token, he also performed poorly — or not at all — in a few of their closest (yet winnable and high-profile) defeats.
Key was plagued by foul trouble against then-ranked Florida, playing less than 20 minutes in the Fort Meyers Tip-Off. He was rendered almost completely useless at Purdue — again, due to foul trouble. The Boilermakers had massive size on the front line, but Key was limited to 12 minutes and a single point against them. He was also a non-factor in late losses to TTUN and Villanova, but that was almost exclusively due to injury.
To say that the results would have been any different had Key played well in those losses would be completely without merit. It would also be incredibly unfair to a key (no pun intended) contributor for this Ohio State team — past, present, and immediate future. Bashing Zed is not the intent here, in any way, shape, or form. To the contrary, referencing his ups and downs is meant to highlight the floor and ceiling of this team, and to stress just how important he is to their success.
With Liddell and Branham playing at a high level this season, OSU was still able to win a number or games in which Key was a minor contributor... but they were at their best when he was at his best. When he (Key) was not available or performing as a tertiary option, the Buckeyes struggled. This was especially true down the stretch.
Next season, Key could be asked to shoulder even more of the load down low! Kyle Young and Joey Brunk are gone, as is Liddell, who also spent considerable time in the post. Felix Okpara, part of Ohio States 2022 recruiting class, will join the team, but he is light on experience and light in general (210 pounds). Coach Holtmann will surely be scouring the transfer portal, but Key is currently the only proven big on the roster.
Who knows how the offseason will play out, but if say Justice Sueing and/or Seth Towns are being asked to battle for rebounds in ’22-23, the Buckeyes will struggle immensely on the glass. If Key is the only post option on offense, the team would be forced to rely heavily upon perimeter shooting, which was... not great recently. Let’s just say that Key needs help on the front line, but his own health and consistency are also of the utmost importance.
Not to put much too much on Key, but Ohio State likely needs a solid campaign from him if they want to be a top-10 or top-15 team next season. And some of the pressure he could face should also be put on the coaching staff. The OSU roster is not, and has not been, loaded with bigs. The staff had the luxury of Young for five seasons, but added minimal size beyond Key. Okpara has a very high ceiling, but he might take time to develop.
The basketball Buckeyes face many unknowns going into next season, but Key is one guy they should be able to count on. He has flashed potential as a second or third option, but Holtmann and his future teammates don’t need 20 and 10 on a nightly basis. They would prefer consistent energy and production, along with the passion and enthusiasm he always brings to the court.