When Zed Key suffered a shoulder sprain three minutes into last night's game against Purdue, another post player needed to step up.
Felix Okpara did just that and even more against the best big man in the country.
Prior to Thursday night, the freshman averaged just 12 minutes per game in Ohio State's first 13 games of the season and never played more than 20 minutes in a single night. Okpara was not only forced to play 30 minutes against the Boilermakers due to Key's injury, but did so while going against Zach Edey, a 7-foot-4, 285-pounder “human cheat code” – in the words of Chris Holtmann – who averaged 21.7 points (10th in Division I) and 13.4 rebounds (second) per game in Purdue’s first 14 games of the season.
Okpara, who is 6-foot-11, was the lone Buckeye over 6-foot-7 who saw playing time after Key’s departure. That meant he spent nearly the entire game going head-to-head with Edey, who finished with 16 points, 11 rebounds and four assists while shooting 6-of-11 from the floor (54.5%) in 32 minutes.
Seems like a really good game, right? Okpara, along with his teammates who double-teamed Edey at times, made things tough every step up of the way. Edey's 16 points are the fewest he has scored while playing 26-plus minutes since the Boilermakers' season opener. The 54.5% shooting percentage from the field is Edey's least efficient game since Dec. 4. He still made a big impact, but Okpara made sure Edey had to earn every basket by staying toe-to-toe with the Boilermaker big man defensively.
Okpara finished with five points, five rebounds, two assists and a plus-4 on the floor in his career-high 30 minutes, but it was the other side of the ball that really stood out for the true freshman. Whether it was trying to make things difficult for Edey, blocking three shots, rotating to help his teammates or just being the anchor in the paint for the Buckeye defense, Okpara proved he he has the potential to be a great defensive center at Ohio State as he continues to develop.
“I thought he did some good things,” Holtmann said of Okpara's performance against Purdue. “He obviously got moved off his spot a lot but I thought Felix really competed, as I expected he would.”
After moving to the United States four years ago, Okpara is still a raw player, at least offensively. But he can use his size and length to make a name for himself on the defensive end of the floor while his offensive game continues to get stronger.
Ohio State already lacked center depth even before Key’s injury, but the Buckeyes seem to have another big man they can count on to play legitimate minutes with Okpara, especially defensively. Without any other true centers on the roster, they’ll need him to play a lot of minutes as long as Key is sidelined. The timetable for Key’s return remains uncertain, as neither Holtmann nor Jake Diebler provided an update on his status in their press conferences Thursday and Friday.
Although it came in a losing effort, Okpara's ability to step in and make life difficult for the most dominant big man in college basketball shouldn't go unnoticed. The Buckeyes will need that to continue as they continue the gauntlet of their Big Ten schedule, which will include plenty more matchups against talented centers.