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How Zed Key’s injury may have derailed an otherwise promising Ohio State men’s basketball season

Was a healthy Key the... key to another 20-win season under Chris Holtmann? Or did the big man’s unfortunate injury simply expose and exacerbate underlying issues?

Brooke LaValley/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

Through 13 games this season, the Ohio State men’s basketball team owned a 10-3 record with solid, resume-strengthening wins over Cincinnati, Texas Tech, Rutgers, and Northwestern. The Buckeyes also played a close, competitive game against San Diego State (now 22-5) and gave both Duke (at Cameron Indoor) and North Carolina (last season’s national runner-up) all those teams could handle.

All three OSU losses were justifiable, if not expected, because Chris Holtmann was working with an almost entirely new roster, albeit one with plenty of talent. Figuring things out with four freshman, three transfers, and one holdover returning from significant injury – all on the same roster – was never going to be easy.

Yet Holtmann and his coaching staff had (seemingly) done it. Ohio State was ranked inside the top-25! Not only that, but the Buckeyes had gone toe-to-toe with some really, really good college basketball teams. And they had all the momentum necessary to knock off No. 1 Purdue on Jan. 5.

Instead, that day became the day during which the Scarlet and Gray dam broke. Or the wall was breached. Or the city taken. Or the day that scary mushroom people from The Last of Us made it inside Value City Arena... Describe it however you like, but Jan. 5 and the immediate aftermath revealed that Holtmann and company had merely covered up, or found a way to shield themselves from, issues, problems, and deficiencies that were simmering below the surface.

So what made Jan. 5 so different? Well, first of all, let’s be sure to narrow it down to Jan. 5, 2023. Because if we looked at Jan. 5, 2021 for example, we could say that a lot on funky things were going on. But when the Buckeyes took on the Boilermakers this year, one event – one injury – seemed to set off a chain of events from which Ohio State has not yet recovered.

Just a few minutes into OSU’s game against Purdue, junior big man Zed Key exited with what looked to be a painful shoulder injury. He did not return that day, and would also go on to miss the team’s game at Maryland (another close loss). When Key did return to action, he was clearly not the same guy we watched drop 22 and 14 on Rutgers.

And frankly, sadly, he has still not returned to form. So a decision was recently made for the “Bay Shore Bully” to have surgery, ending his 2022-23 season and leaving the Buckeyes with very little depth up front.

The Buckeye big man was off to a great start pre-injury
Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

But Key’s lingering injury did more than simply rob him of a potential breakout season. Like I said earlier, it set off a catastrophic chain of events for Holtmann’s entire squad. A squad which was apparently built like a house of cards, ready to collapse at any moment.

Ohio State’s lone experienced big man becoming a shell of himself (due to injury, of course) should not have been the silver bullet it now appears to be. Key is a career eight-point-per-game scorer with limited athletic upside, not Joel Embiid.

**To be clear: I love watching Zed Key play ball. His energy, his attitude, his physical prowess and unique set of skills... All vital to OSU’s success. But this team was not suddenly missing prime Shaquille O’Neal. What they were missing was a healthy, proven big man, of which they had none to fill Key’s shoes. That points to poor roster construction.

When Key became limited, additional pressure was thrown upon the shoulders of coaches and other players, most of which have not been able to handle it or adapt on-the-fly. And not to excuse this team’s wildly disappointing 2023, but looking back, their downward spiral should not have come as a massive surprise.

Nearly the entire Buckeye roster is new. A team can have all the talent in the world, but if said talent does not fit together like a puzzle, then it has potential to fail. Look at John Calipari’s teams as the perfect example: He has likely coached more pound-for-pound talent than any other college coach during the 21st century, yet he has just one national championship to show for it. Coach Cal has also had a handful of other teams that should have cut down the net. But their talent did not mesh.

Ohio State and Kentucky (or early 2000’s Memphis) are not one in the same, but you get my point. OSU’s talent seemed to mesh until arguably their most consistent player became limited. Once Key’s health and effectiveness were compromised, Holtmann tried to experiment with different looks and different lineups. However, when the lineups began to change on a game-by-game basis, all flow and rhythm was lost — especially on offense.

Sans a 93-point explosion against Iowa, the Buckeyes turned into a one-on-one scoring team... Hope Brice Sensabaugh or Sean McNeil gets hot, or cross your fingers that Justice Sueing packed his midrange game. Sure, Key was still in the lineup, but the offense could no longer run through him like it previously did.

And the problem with asking others to do more, is that they are not always capable. Or prepared. Sensabaugh, for example, might be an NBA superstar one day. But right now he is a true freshman, and just as likely to provide a spark as he is to shoot the Buckeyes completely out of a game.

As for Sueing? Clearly a third option, at best. McNeil? Shooter who needs a supporting case. Bruce Thornton? Coming on very strong, but was not ready to help carry the team in January. Tanner Holden? Witness protection.

It goes on and on and on. Small fractures became significant cracks with Key playing at less than 100%. Then guys couldn’t figure it out. Then they lost confidence. And it sucks for all involved. Because I think Holtmann can coach. And I know I believe in the talent on Ohio State’s roster.

But somehow, someway, a shoulder injury which caused Key to miss only one (full) game prior to his shutdown became an inflection point. From that point forward, OSU began to spiral and continued doing so in breathtaking fashion.

Alex Martin/Journal and Courier / USA TODAY NETWORK

Fortunately, this past Saturday gave Buckeye Nation a glimmer of hope that issues and problems within the men’s basketball program could (and would) be addressed and fixed. Without Key in the lineup, OSU’s freshman shined and Holtmann finally appeared to push all the right buttons... But similar performances against Maryland and/or Michigan State are still needed to give fans any real sense of confidence heading into the offseason.

My sincere hope is that we as Buckeye fans get to see most of this same player group at full capacity next season. Who knows what the future holds for Sensabaugh, or if Holden will be interested in coming back to a place where things have not gone according to plan. There are a million other possibilities as well, especially in today’s world of college athletics. Roddy Gayle Jr. could be promised a million dollars elsewhere, and Holtmann could take the Hawaii job because he loves sunshine and unlimited umbrella drinks. Who knows?

But one thing I am strongly inclined to believe, is that this Ohio State men’s basketball team is capable of much, much more. Especially with Raise the Roof Zed prominently involved on a nightly basis. He and Felix Okpara could be a truly lethal combination down low next year. Put a star or two and the right players around them, and Buckeye Nation could be thinking about 1960 all over again.

Longshot? Sure... But what were the odds of OSU ever losing 14 out of 15? I think we’ve learned that you cannot rule anything out, so I choose to optimistically look forward to next season.