To evaluate the difference in Ohio State and Kentucky’s basketball programs year in and year out, one need only glance at their respective recruiting boards.
Kentucky head coach John Calipari’s current roster boasts seven top 25 prospects from the past three recruiting classes, while Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann and the Buckeyes can’t claim a single one.
Yet No. 5 Ohio State (10-1) finds itself ahead of No. 6 Kentucky (8-2) in the Associated Press Poll going into their Saturday matchup in Las Vegas, a rare occurrence for much of the decade, off the strength of a few of the year’s most impressive wins.
“We want to play games like this,” senior forward Andre Wesson said. “To be the best, you gotta beat the best, and over the years Kentucky has been one of the best programs.”
While a three-headed monster of five-star recruits in freshmen forwards Keion Brooks and Khalil Whitney and guard Tyrese Maxley are scoring nearly a third of Kentucky’s points, this is a rare Calipari crew led by a couple of players with more than a year of experience.
The inside-outside combination of sophomore guard Ashton Hagans and junior forward Nick Richards has been a strength for Kentucky on both ends of the floor. Both score upwards of 12.7 points per game and shoot 47 percent or better.
Aside from leading the team in scoring, Hagans was the SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year a season ago.
“We’ve seen good defensive players, but he is so disruptive with the ball and his ability to get his hands on balls and make plays,” Holtmann said. “I don’t know that we’ll see a guy like him all year, with how impactful he is on that end.”
In 6-foot-11, 244-pound Richards, Ohio State junior forward Kaleb Wesson will be facing a player with both a size advantage and nearly equal productivity.
Kaleb Wesson averages more than a point and rebound better, but Richards finds the bottom of the net on more than 20 percent of his shot attempts, approaching a .68 clip from the field. Richards will make it even harder for Kaleb Wesson to shoot efficiently, as his long frame has earned him 2.4 blocks per night.
But Richards is coming off his worst game of the year, with just five points on one made shot in Kentucky’s 69-66 loss to Utah Wednesday night.
Down by 17 in the second half, Kentucky roared back to tie it up behind a defense that Holtmann called the best he’s seen on film in his time at Ohio State, but the Wildcats missed a shot that would’ve sent it to overtime.
“I know they lost last night, but at the end of the day, they’re going to be one of the better teams in the country,” Holtmann said.
Other than a shocking three-point loss to unranked Evansville Nov. 12, the loss to Utah has been the Wildcats’ only stumble this season, but it means both teams will enter with festering wounds.
After 25-point wins against Villanova and North Carolina and a 32-point dismantling of Penn State in the Big Ten opener, a Buckeye team that appeared unbeatable fell victim to a deflating defeat at the hands of Minnesota Sunday.
Without sophomore guard Duane Washington, out with a rib injury that will likely cost him the Kentucky game, the Buckeyes couldn’t find a spark on offense and trailed for nearly the entire game.
The hangover spilled into the following game against Southeast Missouri State, which mustered just three points on Ohio State’s season-high 21 turnovers –– six more than it committed in any game previously.
That bullet won’t be as easily dodged against a long, athletic Kentucky defense.
“We’re definitely more cautious of it now,” Andre Wesson said. “We know that these past two games, turnovers have definitely been a problem, so just cleaning things back up in practice and looking at film to see where we can make better decisions with the ball, that’s the main thing we’re trying to do right now.”
Regardless of the teams’ on-paper credentials, talent and ranking have been thrown out the window for the past two matchups between Ohio State and Kentucky, with the underdog winning in both 2015 and 2011.
Given their seasons, this top-10 matchup may be on a level playing field when it tips off at 5:15 p.m. Saturday in Las Vegas.