Without Zed Key, Ohio State looks for more from Felix Okpara

Adam Jardy
The Columbus Dispatch

The challenge was physically smaller but no less demanding for Felix Okpara.

Last Thursday, the 6-11, 220-pound center was thrust into the biggest role of his freshman season when starter Zed Key suffered a left shoulder sprain in the first four minutes of a home game against No. 1 Purdue. It led to a career-high 30:10 of playing time mostly logged against 7-4, 305-pound Zach Edey in what was a solid, all-around performance for the freshman.

That effort stood in start contrast to Okpara’s afternoon at Maryland’s Xfinity Center three days later. Against a Terrapins team that started a 6-9 center and two 6-8 forwards, Okpara got in early foul trouble, struggled to stay on the court and finished with 2 points in only 12:22.

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Most jarring: although Okpara was three inches taller than any other player to see action in Maryland’s 80-73 win, he did not record a rebound.

“I need to try to get over and chase a rebound more,” Okpara said prior to Tuesday’s practice. “When you’ve got bodies in front of you, you’ve got to try and push them away and rebound. Back in high school I was the tallest guy so I’d just have to jump and get the ball, but now I’ve got to do more work. Chase the ball and figure out where the ball is going.”

Add it to the list of lessons Okpara is still learning. Thursday night, Ohio State will host Minnesota, the lone winless team in the Big Ten, and Okpara could make his second career start as Key continues to progress from the injury suffered last week. If so, and he draws significant minutes against 6-11, 230-pound third-year center Dawson Garcia, the task is clear for Okpara.

He needs to play the Minnesota big man like he’s wearing a Purdue uniform.

“Obviously it’s a big shoe to fill in, without Zed,” Okpara said. “Come in, play hard and do the things I need to do to win. Usually when I come in for Zed I come in, play hard for two, three minutes. Now I feel like I’ve got to bring more intensity on offense and defense.”

As Ohio State prepared for Purdue, Okpara came in averaging 3.9 points and 3.8 rebounds in 12.6 minutes per game. The freshman hadn’t logged more than 16:09 in a game and had played a total of 18:23 in his first two Big Ten games, and his expectations for the Purdue game were on par with that body of work until he saw Key clutching his left shoulder before the first media timeout.

Okpara described losing the team’s third-leading scorer and leading rebounder as “tragic.” The freshman finished with 5 points, five rebounds, three blocks, two assists and zero turnovers in his place.

“I thought he did some good things,” coach Chris Holtmann said after the 71-69 loss. “He got obviously moved off his spot a lot, but I thought Felix really competed, as I expected he would.”

Maryland’s smaller lineups put Okpara in difficult positions early and often. His first foul came during the first two minutes, and when his second was whistled with 11:38 left in the half, it figured to banish the freshman to the bench until halftime. Instead, he subbed back in with 5:07 left and promptly picked up a third foul 21 seconds later.

Jan 5, 2023; Columbus, OH, USA;  Ohio State Buckeyes center Felix Okpara (34) blocks a shot of Purdue Boilermakers center Zach Edey (15) during the second half of the NCAA men's basketball game at Value City Arena. Purdue won 71-69. Mandatory Credit: Adam Cairns-The Columbus Dispatch

Okpara said Key was giving him advice from the bench but joked that it came too late.

“He just told me to play smart,” Okpara said. “He told me that at the Maryland game, but I guess it was a little too late – I had three fouls. He told me, be calm and just let the ball come. Just flow with it.”

That proved to be easier said than done.

“It was way less banging in the post (compared to Purdue), but I feel like I should stay out of foul trouble and we would’ve won the game,” he said. “It is what it is, but that was a good game too.”

Ohio State will need better ones if Key remains sidelined for long.


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