CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – When it comes to the play of two of his captains, Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann stated the obvious Tuesday night.
“We just need more from them,” he said.
In a 69-60 loss at Illinois that marked a sixth in seven games for the Buckeyes, there were plenty of struggles to go around. The offense reverted to the sluggish form that sent them to five straight losses earlier in the month, the defense offered little resistance for long stretches and Ohio State would trail by as many as a season-high 17 points in the loss.
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But if captains Zed Key and Justice Sueing weren’t alone in their struggles against the Fighting Illini, they were at least near the forefront of the conversation. In digging a 34-26 halftime deficit, the two had combined for 2 points and five rebounds while committing five fouls.
Justice Sueing and Zed Key’s improvement isn’t just about scoring
Both would produce more during the second half, but Holtmann’s comments weren’t just about their production.
“It’s not just about points – we need more effort plays, we need more production from them,” the coach said. “They’re too important to what we’re doing and we rely on them too much with how young we are and we’ve got to get them performing at a higher level.”
For the Buckeyes to get back to the form they showed before this stretch of losing six of seven games, Key and Sueing are of paramount importance. It’s not a coincidence that their individual downturns have coincided with Ohio State’s rough patch. On a team with seven new faces in the primary rotation, the assumption was that both would hold down significant roles as numerous new faces meshed around them.
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Zed Key’s struggles for Ohio Stat following injury
The season played out that way for a while. As the Buckeyes tipped off against No. 1 Purdue on Jan. 5, Sueing and Key were second and third, respectively, in scoring at 13.5 and 13.4 points per game. Then, roughly three minutes in, Key exited for the locker room with his left arm awkwardly dangling toward the floor. The diagnosis was a sprained shoulder that would cost Key the next game at Maryland, and when he returned against Minnesota on Jan. 12 he wore a heavy protective wrap on the shoulder.
His production hasn’t been the same since. A 62.9% shooter from the floor through the first 13 games of the season, Key is just 19 for 45 (42.2%) while averaging 9.8 points in his last six games. The Buckeyes have continued to go to him in the post, but Key’s inability to finish has hamstrung an offense searching for answers. And while his rebounding has stayed mostly consistent, Key tied a season low with three rebounds in the loss to the Illini.
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“I thought Zed had some good looks (against Illinois), but it’s not just about his finishes around the basket,” Holtmann said. “He’s got to bring more. He’s got to do more in terms of effort plays, and so does Justice.”
Justice Sueing’s scoring has dropped off since Ohio State played Maryland
Without Key, Sueing had 21 points in a losing effort at Maryland to increase his season scoring average to 14.1. Since then, Sueing is averaging 9.4 points, shooting 36.0% (18 for 50) from the floor and has 11 turnovers and 10 assists as opponents have adjusted defensively to his abilities.
During his healthy 2020-21 season, Sueing finished 57th nationally in free-throw rate (which measures a player’s ability to get to the line relative to how often he attempts to score) at 55.9 according to KenPom.com. This season, he’s at 32.1.
“I just see a lot more help from teams,” he said. “I don’t have those lanes as much as I did before, having guys like Duane (Washington) and E.J. (Liddell) on the team that helped space it. Regardless, I’m going to have to adjust to that.”
After going 1 for 6 from the floor and finishing with the same number of turnovers (four) as points in the Jan. 18 loss at Nebraska, Sueing was removed from the starting lineup against Iowa. Holtmann said afterward he was bumped for fellow captain Isaac Likekele because of his ability to battle Big Ten leading scorer Kris Murray on the defensive end.
Sueing came off the bench again at Illinois and scored 11 points in the second half on 5 of 7 shooting. Key added 8 second-half points before fouling out during a half where the Buckeyes were no closer than seven points.
Ohio State plays Indiana next, will need to get back on track
Afterward, the Buckeyes talked of poor practice leading into the game and its impact on the most decisive loss of the season. The challenge ahead gets no easier, as Ohio State goes to Indiana on Saturday.
How the Buckeyes spend the interim preparing…
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