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“Best decision I’ve ever made.” Entering fourth season, Zed Key loves Ohio State, Columbus more than ever

When Zed Key committed to Ohio State, the Long Island-native had no clue the type of “home away from home” that he would eventually find in central Ohio.

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Clare Grant/The Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

Now entering his fourth year as a Buckeye, Zed Key has been around long enough to witness a few historical moments in the history of the Ohio State men’s basketball program. He was a freshman on the 2020-2021 team that lost to Oral Roberts in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, becoming the ninth 2-seed to ever lose to a 15-seed in the opening round. He was a junior last season — the leading rebounder on a team that finished with the program’s worst record since 1998.

He also dealt with a nasty shoulder injury this past season that coincided with the Buckeyes’ lowest stretch of the season, when they lost 14 out of 15 games and plummetted to the bottom of the Big Ten. Key was resigned to the fact that he’d just have to watch from the sideline while his understudy — freshman center Felix Okpara — was eaten alive most nights against bigger, more experienced centers in the Big Ten.

It wasn’t easy. That stretch was a dark time for Key, and it made him appreciate the game — and his own health — so much more as his senior season draws near.

“That time, it was tough because obviously I wanted to play, I wanted to help my team get out of the slump that we were having,” Key said last week at Ohio State’s media day. “But my shoulder just wasn’t in a position to go out there and play at the highest level. So just making the decision (to have surgery) — it was tough. That decision wasn’t the easiest.

“And once I made it, you know, just sitting there, like I wanted to go out there still. Even when I had the surgery in the Big Ten Tournament, I was still sitting on the side like “I really want to go out here and play,” like the urge was still there. But just learning from last year, and not taking anything for granted..... since you never know. That’s what I learned, you don’t know what’s going to happen to you, so just don’t take nothing for granted, and play hard.”

But don’t get it twisted, a now slimmed-down Key has had some great moments and memories as a Buckeye, too. A three-star recruit out of Long Island Lutheran High School who didn’t crack the top 100 in the class, Key has increased his points per game output every season thus far — from 5.2 as a freshman, to 7.8 as a sophomore, to 10.8 last season. He’s recorded eight double-doubles, dropped 20 points on the Duke Blue Devils twice, and led Ohio State to a win over the top-ranked Blue Devils in 2021 in front of a packed crowd at the Schottenstein Center.

But has the reality of being a Buckeye lived up to his expectations? Since committing to Ohio State in September of 2019, Key would tweet out highlight and training videos and tag as many Ohio State-related Twitter accounts as possible — including the Buckeye Nuthouse account. But why?

“I was ready to be here.” Key joked. “I was ready to go. Trust me.”

Even now, Zed still tweets out videos of himself from time to time, and he still will tag the Buckeye Nuthouse, or the Ohio State Hoops account, or a local news station. His affection for the Ohio State men’s basketball program, the university, and the city of Columbus — a town nearly 600 miles away from where he grew up on Long Island — has never been stronger.

“This is the best decision I’ve ever made,” Zed told me. “I’m glad I made this decision, not just from a basketball standpoint — even outside of basketball. You know, the relationships I’ve built, the people that I’ve met. The bonds that I’ve made. Columbus is a great city, and I love it here. I’m glad I’m here.”

Key has been interested in classic cars for some time, and his interest evolved into a hobby and ultimately a second love since moving to Columbus. It’s not uncommon to find Zed at car shows around central Ohio during the summer, and he says that some of the most meaningful relationships he’s made since coming to Ohio State have nothing to do with basketball, and everything to do with cars.

“I’m a big car guy,” he said, “And I have a whole bunch of car friends, relationships, businessmen that I’ve met, totally unrelated to the university. Just you know, around Columbus.”

In an age of college sports where name, image, and likeness compensation is often the most prominent factor in where a student-athlete winds up, and the one-time transfer rule makes it so easy for a player to jump ship at the first sign of conflict, there’s something endearing about Key and his relationship with the city of Columbus. There’s been ample opportunities for a player like Zed — who was under-recruited out of high school — to go elsewhere.

He could’ve sought additional NIL opportunities, or transferred to a program where he wouldn’t need to compete with a sophomore for his starting spot as a senior. He could’ve allowed the sour taste of a dark, disappointing, and injury-marred junior season to carry him elsewhere and finish his college career with a blank slate at a new school.

But Key’s experience at Ohio State has exceeded the expectations that were set for him as a 17-year-old high school senior when he first committed. He’s found community both on and off the court, and wouldn’t change his story even a little bit, even if he had the chance.