In a performance that sums up this Ohio State team pretty perfectly, seven of the eight players that saw the floor on Saturday afternoon scored between seven and 15 points as the fifth-ranked Buckeyes knocked off No. 6 Kentucky, 71-65, in Las Vegas in the CBS Sports Classic.
D.J. Carton led the way for the Buckeyes, finishing with 15 points and making a number of critical plays down the stretch, while Kaleb Wesson chipped in with 10 points, eight boards and a pair of assists before fouling out.
Nate Sestina led the way for Kentucky with 17 points, knocking down a season-high five threes. Tyrese Maxey had 15 points for the Wildcats while Ashton Hagans went for 14 points and nine assists.
Kentucky has now lost back-to-back games, with a game against Louisville coming up next, while Ohio State added yet another marquee win to their resume.
Here are three things that we can take away from this game:
1. THIS FELT LIKE A COMING OF AGE PERFORMANCE FROM D.J. CARTON
The x-factor for Ohio State this season is freshman point guard D.J. Carton.
He’s one of, if not the most talented freshman point guard in college basketball. He’s explosive, he’s a talented penetrator that can create offense out of nothing and he’s capable of making threes. Every team that was won the national title this decade has had an elite point guard, and with the exception of Kentucky’s 2012 title team (and maybe Villanova in 2018), every single one of those champions played with two point guards on the floor.
C.J. Walker is fine. He’s not a guy that is going to make many mistakes, he can knock down an open three, Chris Holtmann trusts him to run the offense and he can guards when need be. But “fine” has not been good enough to cut down the nets for any team this decade. Carton is the guy with the upside. He’s the dynamic playmaker that can takeover a game and make a play when a defense wins the game-planning battle. He’s the guy that has some NBA upside. All of that showed against Kentucky on Saturday, especially down the stretch.
Carton finished with a team-high 15 points. He was 5-for-6 from the floor and hit a couple of key free throws down the stretch. He broke down UK’s defense when Ohio State’s offense stalled, and he did that against one of the better on-ball defenders around in Ashton Hagans. He made a couple ridiculous plays on the defensive side of the ball as well, blocking an Immanuel Quickley three when he had the chance to put Kentucky in the lead late in the game and stealing a post entry from the weakside when it looked like Nick Richards had himself a wide-open dunk.
Carton’s background is interesting. He’s from Iowa, he didn’t end up at some All-World prep school and he played for an AAU team that was not on one of the shoe company circuits. Put another way, he hadn’t played all that much against this level of competition before arriving on campus. It’s part of the reason he came in as something of a blank slate.
If he can put it all together, if he is the guy on this roster that makes the leap over the next three months, than that can be what turns Ohio State from “one of the best teams in the country” to “OK, maybe their actually is a favorite to win the national title this year.”
2. NATE SESTINA HELPS, AND KENTUCKY FEELS LIKE THEY’RE GETTING CLOSER
Kentucky more or less invented the superteam era in college basketball, so it would be awfully ironic if the team that has thrived in the one-and-done era as much as any program in the country had their season saved by a grad transfer fro Bucknell.
And that may end up being the case this season.
Nate Sestina came back from injury on Saturday and scored a team-high 17 points while hitting five threes. That’s important for a couple reasons. For starters, the Wildcats have been just atrocious shooting the three this season. They entered Saturday making just 27.5 percent of their shots from beyond the arc, and if you take Sestina’s shooting on Saturday out of the equation, the rest of the roster was just 2-for-15 from deep against Ohio State.
Getting someone on the floor that will punish defenses for selling out on drives is pretty important. Sestina does that.
But just as important is that Sestina provides some scoring pop at the four. E.J. Montgomery and Nick Richards have had some good moments this season, but most of those moments have come against the bad teams that the Wildcats have faced. Combined, those two are averaging 10.5 points and 8.0 boards against the four high-major opponents Kentucky has faced. Keion Brooks has had some flashes of potential, but that’s about it. Kahlil Whitney has looked less like a lottery pick and more like a guy destined to be in Lexington until he transfers because he’s sick of being recruited over.
Sestina has his limitations physically, but he plays hard, he provides some leadership and he does the thing none of those guys have been able to do: Provide some scoring pop.
And with him back in the fold, it does feel like Kentucky is getting closer to figuring this thing out. Tyrese Maxey’s making shots again. Ashton Hagans has really been the one guy that has consistently performed for the first seven weeks of the season. The execution wasn’t there against Ohio State – that has as much to do with Ohio State and Chris Holtmann as it does Kentucky and John Calipari – but the effort was there. The fight was there.
I don’t think Kentucky is ever going to look like a top ten team, and I doubt Cal is ever going to feel comfortable about what’s going on at the five, but the good news is that given the landscape of college basketball this season, you don’t have to be great. You just have to give yourself a chance.
3. NEXT SATURDAY HAS BECOME GIGANTIC FOR THE WILDCATS
So let’s talk about that chance for Kentucky.
Because they really have not accomplished all that much this season.
The win over Michigan State is nice. It looks really good on KenPom, a metric that still has preseason data baked into the formula. It is a solid Q1 win in the NET, which is still a good thing. But that is literally the only thing that is worth mentioning about Kentucky’s resume. They haven’t beaten anyone else in the top 100 on KenPom. As of this very moment, Kentucky’s strength of schedule ranks 308th nationally, and that is after they played KenPom’s No. 1 team (Ohio State) on a neutral court.
Think about that for a second.
Their non-conference schedule has been so bad that they rank 308th despite playing two top five teams on neutral courts!
That’s hard to do.
Should I mention that they have already lost to two of those sub-100 KenPom teams?
And given the fact that the SEC is down this year, it is going to limit just how many chances they have to land marquee wins.
Which brings me back to Louisville.
They play Kentucky next Saturday in Rupp. That’s a chance to land a top five win in the non-conference. If the Wildcats, as KenPom projects, go 12-6 in the SEC, then I think they need to beat Louisville if they want to be a top four seed.
There is a lot of season left to play, but there is no question that this is a win Kentucky badly needs to get.