Ohio State was good enough to close out Kentucky without its best player and might be the nation's top team
The Buckeyes pulled away from UK even after Kaleb Wesson fouled out late in OSU's victory in the CBS Sports Classic
The ref blew his whistle.
He pointed at Kaleb Wesson.
And everybody here inside T-Mobile Arena paying close enough attention immediately knew what that meant for Ohio State. What it meant is that the Buckeyes would have to play the final 3:30 without their leading scorer, leading rebounder and likely All-American because that whistle represented Wesson's fifth and final foul. He was done. At this point, Ohio State was up six. But Kentucky's Tyrese Maxey would soon make a free throw to cut that lead to five. And that's when the overwhelmingly pro-Kentucky crowd started cheering a little louder because these UK-loving fans realized the game was available to be taken.
Kentucky never took it, though.
In fact, Ohio State never allowed the Wildcats to get closer than those five points the rest of the way en route to what was an eventual 71-65 victory in the second game of Saturday's CBS Sports Classic. CJ Walker buried a late-in-the-shot-clock dagger 3-pointer with 26.6 seconds left that pushed the lead to eight and basically ended things. He scored five of Ohio State's final nine points.
"It was fun watching my teammates [close the game]," Wesson told me afterward. "I'm just happy we got the win."
It should be noted that Kentucky coach John Calipari was mostly in good spirits after what was the Wildcats' second straight loss and third of the season. He knows this young team is a work in progress just like most of the young teams he's coached in the previous 10 seasons at UK were a work in progress. But he also knows, deep down, somewhere, that the pieces necessary to be good and compete at the top of the SEC are in the program, especially if Nate Sestina becomes a stretch-forward who serves as a consistent threat from the perimeter like he was against Ohio State while finishing 5-of-8 from beyond the arc.
Still, UK's perimeter shooting must improve.
Kentucky players not named Nate Sestina were just 2-of-15 from 3-point range against Ohio State, and the Wildcats are now shooting 27.8% from 3 on the season. That number ranks 323rd nationally and is a big reason why Kentucky will enter Christmas with a body of work lacking substance. The Wildcats have lost to two sub-100 KenPom teams (Utah, Evansville) and beaten just one top-100 KenPom team (Michigan State) while compiling this 8-3 record. Unless the perimeter shooting improves at least some, it's tough to image Kentucky's body of work improving too much between now and Selection Sunday, and take this fact for whatever it's worth: no team shooting below 28% from 3 has made the NCAA Tournament in any of the past nine seasons.
Again, UK is shooting 27.8%.
"We got good shooters," Calipari insisted before going on to explain that it's somewhat baffling to watch his players make 3-pointers consistently in practice and then just miss, miss, miss in the games. He wondered aloud if it's a mindset thing or a not-enough-reps thing. Either way, on back-to-back days, he spoke candidly about it and seems to realize it's a real issue that must get fixed and fast.
Now back to Ohio State.
Multiple teams now have a reasonable case to be No. 1 in Monday's Associated Press Top 25 poll -- among them Gonzaga, Duke and perhaps even undefeated Auburn and undefeated San Diego State. But, make no mistake, Ohio State is definitely on the list and arguably at the top of it.
The Buckeyes improved to 11-1 with the win over Kentucky and now own four top-40 KenPom victories -- including a 25-point blowout of the nationally ranked Villanova team that just beat current-No. 1 Kansas, a 32-point blowout of the nationally ranked Penn State team that's beaten current-No. 7 Maryland, and a 25-point blowout of the North Carolina team that's beaten current-No. 8 Oregon. Beyond that, the Buckeyes rank No. 1 at KenPom. And their lone loss came on the road at Minnesota last weekend when Ohio State was missing its second-leading scorer (Duane Washington) because of a rib injury.
That's a strong resume.
If it leads AP voters to rank Ohio State No. 1 on Monday, I'm certain Holtmann will appreciate it, if only because it would be a cool thing that creates more exposure and attention for his program. But Holtmann has made it clear for years, in both good and bad times, that he's not the type to get too caught up in the moment. There's always a next game. There's always another turn. And he sounded very much like a coach who still subscribes to that approach after obtaining his latest signature victory.
"There's a lot of season left to be played," Holtmann said. "John [Calipari's] track record for getting players, or getting teams, to play their best in March is obviously well documented. So that's all we're trying to do. We said after the Minnesota game [that] we're [just] trying to learn and move forward. No one game defines us. Not one of those three [big] wins defines us. It's a long season. We're just trying to get better."
I don't doubt Holtmann when he says that. If you're not working to get better, after all, you're begging to get worse. But, that said, here's the truth: Ohio State is maybe already better than everybody else. It's looked that way, at least, multiple times this season. And that's what some of the numbers convincingly show as well.
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