Freshmen Zed Key, Gene Brown turn limited chances into success for Ohio State basketball

Adam Jardy
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State freshman Gene Brown, shown against Morehead State on Dec. 2, made three three-pointers in a win over UCLA on Saturday.

CLEVELAND – There’s no real way to avoid talking about playing time with recruits. Every player wants to know when they will see the court, how often they will do so and how many shots they can be expected to take once they get to college.

In almost all cases, the actual experience doesn’t quite match the expectations. When that’s the case, Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann likes to talk to his players about embracing whatever their reality actually looks like.

More:Ohio State hoops notebook: Zed Key, Gene Brown spark win against UCLA

Saturday afternoon at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, Zed Key and Gene Brown did just that. The two freshmen entered the game averaging 6.5 and 2.9 points per game, respectfully, but combined for 20 as well as a game-changing sequence to help the Buckeyes overturn a six-point deficit and beat UCLA 77-70 as part of the CBS Sports Classic.

“Our two freshmen were outstanding,” Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said. “What it says about those guys is they just stayed ready. Both of them stayed ready.”

That has been a bit of an easier task for Key, who is averaging 16.7 minutes per game as a backup center and was coming off his first career start. Key already has a double-double to his name, and with roughly six minutes to play against UCLA he blocked center Jalen Hill with the score tied at 63.

More:Freshman Zed Key bringing energy, 'finger guns' to Ohio State men's basketball

It started a break that led to a three-pointer from Brown, who was averaging 9.8 minutes per game and had only 11 total points through the first six games. It was his second three of the night, and one possession later he would sink another that gave Ohio State all the breathing room it would need.

“Honestly it was a great feeling for my teammates to trust me and allow me to get two back-to-back threes in a tight game like that,” Brown said. “It just proves we’ve been working hard together and doing all the little things through practice.”

Neither player was a top-100 national recruit according to the composite database. Both were three-star prospects, with Brown ranked No. 138 nationally and Key at No. 146.

“I think both of us, we don’t really look at that,” Key said. “We just come in and practice every day and work hard. That’s what we need to do. That’s how you get playing time in a game.”

It’s still a process that takes time. Holtmann pointed to the likes of Iowa’s Luka Garza and former Wisconsin standout Frank Kaminsky as players who saw somewhat limited early playing time only to blossom into Big Ten players of the year later in their careers. Those kinds of examples, as well as conversations with some of Ohio State's veterans, can help a freshman navigate the valleys of that first season.

Continued dialogue is needed to help keep perspective. Brown said he expected to be playing more this season but has had conversations with Holtmann about his role when he does get on the court. Most of the time, that involves playing strong defense and crashing the glass for rebounds.

That’s different from Key’s role, which will remain more consistent going forward due to Ohio State’s lack of depth in the post.

“You try to have the conversations of what’s reality at this level,” Holtmann said. “It’s on the young man to say, 'OK, I’m gonna embrace that and do that at a high level.'

"To this point, you would have to say that our two freshmen, in particular Gene because he’s not played as much as Zed, have done that. And if they do that, they’ll continue to be productive players.”


Ohio State vs. Rutgers

When: 4:30 p.m. Wednesday

TV: Big Ten Network

Radio: WBNS-FM/AM (97.1/1460)