Andre Curbelo and Zed Key spent years terrorizing opponents on the basketball court at Long Island Lutheran and in AAU play. And it hasn’t taken them long to showcase their talents in the Big Ten.
Curbelo, a 6-1 point guard from Puerto Rico, and Key, a 6-8 forward from Bay Shore, were two of the most dominant players on Long Island last year. The two excelled at Long Island Lutheran, a private high school in Brookville, which has garnered national attention as one of the elite basketball powerhouses on the East Coast. They led the Crusaders to a state Federation Class AA title in 2019 and seemed poised to do the same in 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
The two had incredible chemistry as Curbelo, a dynamic point guard, created off the dribble and found Key, who used his post skills and strength to finish the play.
Curbelo now is playing for Illinois, Key is at Ohio State, and Saturday the two played their first collegiate game against one another.
No. 21 Ohio State defeated host No. 14 Illinois, 87-81, and Key was a physical presence on both ends of the floor. He scored eight points and shot 3-for-4, with four rebounds over 13 minutes. Curbelo had two points and two assists over 12 minutes.
Before the contest, the two spoke with Newsday about how they view each other as brothers — except when playing each other.
"Although we play on Saturday, that’s my guy," Key said. "We’ll be enemies at that point, but that’s always my guy."
"It’s not going to be any different than any other game," Curbelo said. "I’m just going to be going against my old teammate, and he’s a brother to me. Obviously we’ll say, ‘what’s up’ and all that, but once I step on that court, he’s my enemy and I’m going to go against him. I’m going against his team. I don’t have any friends on the court besides my teammates, so after that, we are all friends and brothers again. And I’m pretty sure it’s going to be the same for him."
Curbelo, a two-time Newsday Player of the Year, entered Saturday averaging 9.3 points and 4.6 assists in 21.6 minutes a game. He ranks sixth in minutes, and has a team-leading 16 steals.
Long Island Lutheran coach John Buck wasn’t surprised Curbelo has had an immediate impact for the Fighting Illini.
"His skills translate to pretty much any level," Buck said. "Those instincts, that feel, they are hard to find really at any level. So I knew his ability to just have a sense of where the ball is, being at the right place at the right time, see a pass that no one else would see, his ability to use a ball screen, those things you can kind of plug right in."
Curbelo, who credited his time playing for the Puerto Rico national team and at LuHi, said he thought the transition to college basketball was easier than expected.
"At first I had the mindset that college was going to be hard for me as an undersized guard," Curbelo said. "But at the end of the day, you go out there and play hard, you play your butt off and that’s what’s going to get you minutes."
Key has provided a similar spark for Ohio State. He entered Saturday averaging 6.9 points and 3.8 rebounds over 14.1 minutes a contest. Buck and Curbelo have both seen a physical maturity in Key.
"I just play hard all the time and bring energy to the game whenever my name is called," Key said. "Just go in and make an impact on the game. That’s what I’ve been doing since AAU, high school — just come in and be a spark. When the coach calls my number, I just want to go in and be a player and don’t worry about anything else."
The two met on the court for a photo before Saturday's game. They had a competitive moment in the game when Curbelo drove and tried an up-fake on Key. But Key didn’t bite and Curbelo turned the ball over.
Buck said he watched Saturday as a neutral party and after seeing the two head-to-head during LuHi practices, he knew they’d be competitive.
"When you play your brother, you want to get the best of him and you start to get that competitive edge," Buck said. " They are going to really compete and try to come out with the win."
Curbelo and Key both have been impressed by what each has achieved and they are thankful that basketball has kept them close.
"We’ve been having great starts, we just need to keep improving, keep playing hard, keep doing what we got to do to get better," Curbelo said. "At the end of the day, it’s bigger than basketball and we are both trying to do great things for our families and the people we care about. What he’s doing and what I’m doing, I think it’s great and that’s what I love about basketball."