First-half struggles doom No. 4 Kentucky against Ohio State
One week after they were blown out at UConn on national television, Ohio State wasn’t given much of a chance to compete with No. 4 Kentucky much less win the game. But games are played for a reason, and Saturday afternoon in Brooklyn the Buckeyes outplayed the Wildcats and won by the final score of 74-67.
Once again Kentucky got off to a slow start offensively, and outside of freshman guard Jamal Murray the Wildcats struggled to get much going against Ohio State. Murray scored 33 points on the day, shooting 12-for-23 from the field and 7-for-9 from three in his best performance of the season. Ohio State didn’t have an answer for Murray, but the good news for the Buckeyes was that the other key Wildcats struggled and a 20-7 first half run gave them the cushion they needed to pull off the upset.
Tyler Ulis shot 4-for-12 from the field and Isaiah Briscoe made just one of his eight field goal attempts, and given the inconsistency of Kentucky’s front court John Calipari can’t afford to have his guards struggle to put points on the board. As a team the Wildcats shot 30.5 percent in the first half, and overall they struggled mightily inside of the arc. Kentucky shot 9-for-19 from three with the aforementioned Murray being the biggest reason why, but it’s tough to win games when shooting just over 36 percent from two.
Part of that can be placed upon penetrating guards taking challenged shots. But another issue is the play of the Kentucky big men, and outside of Marcus Lee they’ve struggled to find positive answers.
How can Calipari get what he needs from his big men? It goes without saying that Skal Labissiere has much further to go in his development than anyone imagined before the season began. The freshman finished Saturday’s game with two points and five rebounds, shooting 1-for-7 from the field and being rendered ineffective by the Buckeyes.
Lee has been Kentucky’s most consistent front court player and that was once again the case against Ohio State, as he tallied 12 points and nine rebounds in 21 minutes before fouling out. But he needs help. With Labissiere being where he is development-wise and Alex Poythress still struggling to play with the aggressiveness and athleticism his coach is demanding of him, the Wildcats will continue to have issues moving forward if strides aren’t made.
Ohio State was the more aggressive team from the start, and outside of some turnover issues in the second half as Kentucky fought back to within three points Thad Matta’s team played well. Keita Bates-Diop scored 16 points and grabbed seven rebounds and Marc Loving added 12 and nine boards. There’s still a lot of room for this team to grow, and Saturday’s win is a highly valuable confidence booster for the young Buckeyes.
That being said, it’s hard not to return the focus to a team viewed as the clear favorites in the SEC and a national title contender. Ulis and Briscoe will have better afternoons. But if Kentucky is to be a major player nationally this season they’ll need more from their front court options, most notably Poythress. None of Kentucky’s big men have to be “20 and ten” players, but they’ve got to play with more aggression and consistency than they have in many of the Wildcats’ games to this point if this group is reach its goals.