Ohio State notebook: Zed Key impresses, Meechie Johnson Jr. arrives and more

Adam Jardy
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State Buckeyes center Zed Key (23) is guarded by Cleveland State Vikings forward Deante Johnson (35) during the second half of Sunday's NCAA Division I basketball game at Value City Arena in Columbus, Oh. on December 13, 2020. Ohio State won the game 67-61.

Someone was going to have to step into the E.J. Liddell-sized void that currently exists on this Ohio State roster.

Enter Zed Key, finger guns blazing.

Sunday afternoon at Value City Arena, No. 22 Ohio State was in need for a spark as its offense sputtered and winless Cleveland State smelled the opportunity for an upset. Seated in the home bench area with a facemask on, Ohio State’s leading scorer and rebounder could only watch as the Vikings kept pace, pulled within one midway through the second half and generally frustrated the Buckeyes.

More:Without E.J. Liddell, Ohio State leans on CJ Walker, Zed Key to hold off Cleveland State

When the home team emerged with a 67-61 win, Key was a critical part of the reason why. In a balanced performance, Key scored six points and pulled down five rebounds in both halves to finish with his first career double-double.

It was one game after Liddell set career highs with 19 points and 12 rebounds in a 90-85 win at Notre Dame, a game that saw Key manage only two minutes of scoreless playing time.

“Just come in and play hard,” Key said. “That’s what the coaches expect from all of us. Embrace it, come into the game and just play your butt off. Make effort plays and grab rebounds and the offensive side will come.”

Before the game, Key said Liddell told him not to worry too much. Just play hard, do what you do and everything will work out, he said.

Key didn’t have the pressure of making his first career start. Junior forward Justin Ahrens got the nod, sliding Justice Sueing to power forward with senior Kyle Young at center. The freshman wound up logging 21 minutes, four more than Young, who battled foul trouble and what coach Chris Holtmann said was some ankle soreness.

“I thought he was great,” Holtmann said of Key. “I thought Zed was great. Protected the rim, impacted shots. I thought that was maybe his biggest impact, and he brought physicality to tonight. I thought he was tremendous and certainly earned this moment. The Notre Dame game was a little bit of a difficult matchup, but boy, I thought he was tremendous tonight.”

Cleveland State brought a physicality that the Buckeyes struggled to match. It was a thread Holtmann kept picking at during his postgame press conference. Listed at 6-9, 240 pounds, Key was able to bring some of that right at the Vikings, who committed 27 team fouls and had all 10 players who saw at least nine minutes of playing time pick up at least one each.

Key helped negate some of that. In addition to the points and rebounds, the freshman had a career-high three blocks and two assists and also recorded his first career steal.

“He creates space for people to drive,” senior guard CJ Walker, who finished with 16 points for a second straight game, said. “He also can finish around the basket. Defensive rebounding. He had a couple blocks we needed. He’s just really good for us. He’s a good backup for EJ. He plays hard and gives us energy.”

Ahrens was scoreless at the half and airballed his lone three-point attempt but hit both of his second-half attempts, played some solid defense and finished with six points and three rebounds.

He and his teammates will have to up their antes going forward. The Buckeyes will open Big Ten play at Purdue on Wednesday and take on North Carolina on Saturday in Cleveland as part of the CBS Sports Classic.

Ohio State has just one game on its remaining schedule against a team ranked worse than 69th nationally according to KenPom.com: a Dec. 30 home game against No. 115 Nebraska, the lone meeting between the two teams this season.

It’s not clear when Liddell, who is suffering from mononucleosis, will be back in action.

“The hardest thing for me is seeing how disappointed he is to not play,” Holtmann said. “When you have an illness like that, there’s no telling necessarily how long he’s had it. That’s what we’re still trying to figure out. It could’ve been in his system for a couple weeks. The hard part is telling a young man who was playing so well that he’s going to miss at least one game and maybe a few games or more.”

Pushed

Key’s performance was needed. With Liddell out, the Buckeyes received mixed results from their other primary contributors.

More:Already mixing and matching, Ohio State basketball now must adapt without E.J. Liddell

Justice Sueing, Ohio State’s second-leading scorer entering the game at 15.3 points per game, finished with nine points on 2-of-8 shooting. He missed both of his three-point attempts and was 5 for 8 from the free-throw line while committing two turnovers.

Duane Washington Jr. entered the game averaging 14.3 points per game. He led the Buckeyes with 17, but he did it by going 5 for 14 from the floor and 2 for 7 from three. He hit his first two threes before missing his final five, and he was only 3 for 7 inside the line. He also sat for a significant period of time, checking out with 11:18 to play and not returning until the 4:11 mark. During that time, Ohio State took a 41-39 lead and expanded it to 58-50.

Five of his points came from the free-throw line during the final 33 seconds.

Combined, Ohio State’s two available leading scorers were 7 for 22 (31.8%) from the floor and 2 for 9 (22.2%) from three while combining for 26 points.

This was against a Cleveland State team picked to finish seventh in the 12-team Horizon League in a preseason poll, and one playing without second-team all-league selection Algevon Eichelberger.

“They both understand they’ve got to play better,” Holtmann said. “We’ve got to help them get to that point. I think it’s a good lesson, good opportunity, good learning moment for us. This was certainly the most physical team we played. As this level of competition raises and the physicality raises we’ve got to learn from it and get better.”

Tough nights

Young continued what has been a difficult start to his senior season with his first scoreless game since he played 14 minutes in a blowout, 90-76 loss at Penn State on Jan. 18, 2020. After averaging a career-high 7.5 points per game as a junior, Young is at 5.4 through five games and shooting 34.6% from the floor (9 for 26), 16.7% from three (1 for 6) and 40.0% (8 for 20) from two.

Simply put, nothing’s coming easy for Young.

“I think Kyle, he’s fighting some things physically. We’ve got to work to get Kyle doing some things better. I would’ve liked to have seen him rebound the ball a little bit better. Overall, some of our veteran guys, we just need some more stuff from them. He’s one of them and I fully expect that’ll be the case.”

Of particular concern is Young’s two-point shooting percentage. Last season, he hit on 63.6% (70 for 110) of his two-point shots. As a sophomore, it was 70.0% (77 for 110).

He has 15 such misses through five games. Last season, it took Young 10 games to miss that many shots.

Foul trouble did affect his minutes in addition to the ankle soreness Holtmann referenced. That, too, has been more of an issue this season as Young is averaging a career-high 2.5 fouls per game. Against Cleveland State, Young picked up his second foul with 9:10 to go in the first half and did not return until after halftime.

During the final 20 minutes, Young had a steal, an assist and his two missed field goals. He subbed out with 12:46 left, returned with 6:32 to play and then came out again with 5:13 to play and did not return.

No history

Because the game was close enough that I had to look this up during stoppages in play, here are some facts about Ohio State’s run of mostly success against in-state teams.

Since that 60-59 loss to Dayton on March 20, 2014, in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, the Buckeyes have now won 11 straight games against teams from Ohio. The last time an Ohio team came to Columbus and beat the Buckeyes was on Dec. 22, 1994, when Bowling Green came to St. John Arena and left with a 59-50 win.

Ironically, that was Ohio State’s second loss to an Ohio team in as many games. Five days earlier, the Buckeyes went to Cleveland and lost, 75-73, to Cleveland State at what was then known as Gund Arena. That is the lone Vikings win against the Buckeyes.

There is another Ohio loss sandwiched between the Bowling Green and Dayton games. On Dec. 5, 1998, Ohio State lost, 64-63, at Toledo in a season that has since been vacated by the NCAA but one that culminated with a berth in the Final Four.

On hand

Liddell wasn’t the only player watching from the bench, unable to play. Harvard graduate transfer Seth Towns remains sidelined as he works to recover from a knee surgery in January after missing his last two seasons, but he did post a message to Twitter after the game.

There was a new face on hand, too. Meechie Johnson Jr., a guard from Garfield Heights, Ohio, arrived on campus Saturday and watched the game with his new teammates. Originally a member of Ohio State’s 2021 recruiting class, Johnson graduated early, reclassified and is joining the Buckeyes now.

He’ll still be a freshman next season. The NCAA has awarded an extra year of eligibility to all players this season as the sport perseveres through a pandemic, and Holtmann said there’s no rush to get Johnson on the court.

“It’s going to be a while,” Holtmann said. “He’s got to go through a whole battery of medical exams. He’s got to acclimate himself to conditioning and practice. He’s done a great job staying in pretty good shape, but there’s not a chance in the world we’re going to throw a young man until he’s absolutely ready into a college practice, much less a college game. I don’t have a specific timeline, but it will be a while.”

Quotable

“We didn’t play with enough force, generally. We just did not play with enough force. The reasons for that, I’ve got to go back and watch the tape. We clearly have to be better. We’ve got to coach that better. We’ve got to play better with more force against that physicality.” – Holtmann

“We went into the locker room and all talked together that we just need to play harder. We talked about them being very physical with us and how this game is going to be one of those games. That’s what we were talking about, playing more physical, holding the ball strong and playing our game.” – Key, on what was said at halftime with the Buckeyes leading 31-24.

“We’re a learning and growing team. We’re building our chemistry. It’s different in these types of environments. It’s hard to win with no fans. You’ve got to adjust. Every team comes in playing hard and wants to come in and make a statement like Cleveland State did today. They came in and played harder than us today. We had to adjust in in the second half and we did. We’re learning and getting better each and every day.” – Walker

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy