Kentucky coach John Calipari admitted the obvious after the No. 4 Wildcats got bullied in a 74-67 loss to Ohio State yesterday afternoon at Barclays Center in the second game of the CBSSports Classic.
“I know this,” Calipari said. “We’re not as good as we were a year ago . . . People will smell blood. They’re coming after us. It’s the way it is.”
It would be difficult for any team to be as good as the group Calipari had last season that won its first 38 games before losing to Wisconsin in the national semifinals. The new group of elite freshman recruits that arrived in Lexington simply doesn’t look as tough as the bunch led by No. 1 overall NBA draft pick Karl-Anthony Towns.
Jamal Murray, who had a 33-point game that included 7-for-9 shooting from three-point range, led a second-half comeback that cut a 16-point Ohio State lead to three with 4:10 left to play. But as Calipari noted, the Wildcats (9-2) didn’t make the plays at “winning time” to pull out the victory.
As well as Murray played, high-profile freshmen Isaiah Briscoe out of Roselle Catholic in Newark and Skal Labissiere were at the opposite end of the spectrum. Briscoe had three points, shooting 1-for-9. Labissiere had two points, shot 1-for-7 and saw only 21 minutes because Calipari chose to go with junior Marcus Lee, who had 12 points and nine rebounds against the physical Buckeyes (6-5).
Ohio State was intent on roughing up the Wildcats from the start to get them off their game, and it worked. The Buckeyes led by as much as 14 points in the first half and held the Wildcats to 30.6 percent shooting from the field.
“We had nothing to lose,” said Marc Loving, who had 12 points and eight rebounds. “We had a chip on our shoulder from the beginning. Just playing a team like Kentucky, everyone thinks you’re going to lose except the guys in the locker room.”
The Buckeyes, who also got 14 points and seven rebounds from Keita Bates-Diop, pushed their lead to 55-39 with 11:28 left in the game. Then Murray got hot and scored 11 points in a 21-8 run that cut Kentucky’s deficit to 63-60.
“We have to understand that these teams are coming at us with their best shot,” Murray said. “They hit us in the mouth early. We weren’t able to recover until late in the game, and at that point, it was too late.”
The Wildcats made it a one-possession game, but with 2:56 left, a wild scramble for a loose ball ended with a flagrant foul on Kentucky’s Tyler Ulis. Kam Williams converted two foul shots for Ohio State, which maintained possession, and two seconds later, Kentucky intentionally fouled Daniel Giddens, a 28.6 percent free-throw shooter who made both. Suddenly, it was 67-60.
Calipari suggested the learning process might take longer with this group, saying, “It’s just disappointing. I want them to be farther along than they are, but we’re where we are right now . . . We’re not a team that’s going to beat people by 25. This isn’t a year ago.”