Big Ten Media Days Notebook: Chris Holtmann Names Captains, OSU's Freshman Guards Will Be “As Key As Anything” And Zed Key Has A Green Light From the 3-Point Line

By Griffin Strom on October 12, 2022 at 5:48 pm
Zed Key
Ohio State Dept. of Athletics, Twitter/@OhioStateHoops

Chris Holtmann brought three Buckeyes with him to preview the upcoming men’s basketball season at Big Ten Media Days in Minnesota.

Holtmann, Zed Key, Justice Sueing and Isaac Likekele all addressed reporters at the Target Center in Minneapolis on Wednesday, and Eleven Warriors was present to soak in all the action. Ohio State’s head coach revealed the Buckeyes’ captains for the 2022-23 season, discussed the importance OSU’s freshman class will play this year and provided several other roster updates as part of two media appearances.

In a joint breakout interview session, Likekele explained the origin of his nickname, Sueing spoke about his health status and Key talked about the new elements of his game he hopes to reveal to Buckeye fans this season, among plenty other things.

Here are five things we learned Wednesday as we spent time with all four Buckeyes in Minneapolis.

Thornton, Gayle “as key as anything” for OSU

Holtmann’s been adamant that four freshmen will play significant roles for Ohio State this season, and there’s little secret as to who those players are. Roddy Gayle, Bruce Thornton, Brice Sensabaugh and Felix Okpara – all four-star prospects in the 2022 class – are on the verge of regular rotational time in year one.

But Holtmann said the development of two of those four players may be more important than the others as it pertains to the immediate success of the 2022-23 Buckeye roster.

“I think that will be as key as anything to our season this year, is not just the development of our four freshmen but the development of those two young guards (Thornton and Gayle) and the growth that they take,” Holtmann said. “We know how important guard and wing play is in college basketball, and certainly in the NCAA Tournament, the versatility that provides.”

Holtmann didn’t claim that Thornton, Gayle or any of the Buckeye freshmen might be as impactful as first-round NBA draft pick Malaki Branham was in his first season, but that their contributions might be just as vital, collectively.

“I don't think there's any question that the development of really all four of our freshmen that are going to play is going to be critical to this team. Just the growth that those guys experience,” Holtmann said. “I was asked the other day, do I see those guys developing at the rate that Malaki developed? That's a hard ask to put on guys. I think they have to run their own race. But we certainly are going to need important play from those two guys as well as all four of our freshmen this year.”

Captains named

Key, Sueing and Likekele weren’t just chosen as Ohio State’s media days representatives at random. While discussing the latter in his breakout interview, Holtmann revealed that each member of the trio is actually a Buckeye captain this season.

“(Likekele’s) really a competitive kid. He just can't get bored with the daily process of getting better. And I think that's what we challenged him with. But there's a reason why he was voted a captain,” Holtmann said. “He's just got a charisma to him. Our three captains are, as of now – I think we could add one, and we're looking at adding one – but our three captains are Justice Sueing, Zed Key, Isaac Likekele.”

Holtmann previously said Sueing would be one of Ohio State’s captains, as he was last season, but the other two will hold that honor for the first time. That list might not be finished just yet, though, as Holtmann said “we could add a fourth one.”

As for the leading candidate, Holtmann said third-year wing Eugene Brown III is likely the frontrunner, despite Thornton showing leadership skills early in his collegiate tenure.

“I don't know that I want to put that on a freshman right away. We'll see how that evolves and that goes,” Holtmann said. “I think Gene could be a guy in line for that as well. But I think time will tell with that.”

Justice Sueing sprained ankle last week

Ohio State’s sixth-year forward has had full medical clearance since late August after missing all but two games due to an abdominal injury last season. But at open practice Monday, Sueing was limited for a couple of short portions of the action.

Holtmann said Wednesday that was due to an ankle sprain and not any lingering concerns with the issue that plagued Sueing a year ago.

“He's had no limitations right now. He did tweak his ankle and that limited his practice last week. He was out probably for three or four days with just an ankle sprain,” Holtmann said. “Outside of that, he's really been full go.”

Sueing impressed in the Buckeyes’ open practice session, which included several sets of 5-on-5 scrimmages, and Holtmann said he’s been pleased with Sueing’s preseason progress despite the ankle sprain.

“You're starting to see some things. I think there will be a little bit of rust once we get to games as well. But he's in great shape,” Holtmann said. “He's really worked hard. I'm really proud of Justice. As a coach, really happy for a young man to get back and be able to enjoy his final year of college basketball.”

Key has green light from 3

Key’s made it a point to improve his 3-point shooting over the offseason. The Buckeye junior didn’t even attempt a three in his first two seasons, but Key participated in Ohio State’s 3-point contest on the blacktop at the RPAC and took a couple of threes during the Buckeyes’ open practice on Monday.

But will the 6-foot-8 post specialist really have a green light to take outside shots this season? Key said yes on Wednesday, citing a need to stretch opposing defenses as he continues to round out his game.

“I'm definitely going to have the green light to be able to shoot this year. I've worked really hard with the coaches this summer on expanding my game in that area and other areas,” Key said. “So they want me to shoot. It helps expand out the defense and open up driving lanes for passing on offense. So they definitely want me to shoot, and I'll definitely be shooting some threes this year.”

Holtmann said Key’s effort in the 3-point contest didn’t exactly indicate his starting center is a dead shot from outside, but said Key is knocking down about a third of his threes during Ohio State practices.

“Well, based on his performance on Buckeyes on the Blacktop, that might call into question me giving him the freedom. He has shot it, I don't have his exact percentages up to date, but he's shot it at above a 32, 33% clip in all of our live action right now,” Holtmann said. “He needs a little bit of time, but he is going to have freedom to shoot some threes, for sure. There's no question. I think for him, he's got to be able to expand his game. He's really worked at it. All the numbers that we chart throughout the season and all the summer and all the shooting drills suggest that he's going to be able to make threes. And I really believe he will.”

Key said he may even unveil a new signature dance move when he hits his first three for the Buckeyes in 2022-23, although he’s not tipping his hand on what that might entail just yet.

“I'm gonna stick with the finger guns and raise the roof, and we shall see what I do for the 3-point celebration. I'm gonna keep that a surprise,” Key said. “It may just be a spontaneous thing, so we shall see. Like I might do a backflip.”

Ice, not Isaac

You’re not likely to hear anyone who knows Ohio State’s first-year Oklahoma State transfer refer to him by his first name.

Likekele prefers “Ice,” which he said friends, teammates and coaches have been calling him since his first year of high school. Likekele spoke about the origin of his nickname at Big Ten Media Days, and said it’s “weird to hear” anyone call him Issac.

“It's just a childhood nickname and really it's just stuck with me my whole life. That's why like, we were sitting here and everybody's calling me Isaac and stuff – it's weird to hear,” Likekele said. “Nobody ever calls me that. I used to watch games last year and I'd be listening to the TV guys and they'll be like, 'Ice Likekele.' Like nobody calls me Isaac, it's just weird. At the same time though, I don't know, it's just stuck with me ever since my childhood.”

Likekele even remembers the person who coined the nickname back in Mansfield, Texas, and coincidentally, he bears the name of the first opponent Likekele will take on in a scarlet and gray uniform.

“It started right once I got to high school, honestly. Like my freshman year, right when I got to high school. And I remember his name was Rob, Robert Morris. Yeah, Robert Morris, he gave me that name, Ice, and then it just passed on throughout the whole city,” Likekele said. “Really, everybody just started calling me Ice. I really sometimes think that's my real-life first name, I'm gonna be real with you.”

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