Ohio State freshman D.J. Carton playing with poise

Adam Jardy
Ohio State's D.J. Carton celebrates after a play against Kentucky during the second half of the Buckeyes' victory Saturday in Las Vegas. [John Locher/The Associated Press]

LAS VEGAS — Kaleb Wesson knows a few things about playing with emotion. Ohio State's leading scorer showed plenty of it during a rough-and-tumble sophomore season, and as the attention increased, it became more difficult to keep his emotions in check.

So what he saw out of guard D.J. Carton on Saturday afternoon at T-Mobile Arena was worth noting. It wasn't just the team-high 15 points in a 71-65 win against sixth-ranked Kentucky in the CBS Sports Classic, the game-changing steal he had late or the bounce pass through three defenders leading to a Kyle Young dunk.

It was the way the freshman, playing in his 12th college basketball game, handled himself against the stiffest competition he's seen yet.

“He's a big-time player,” Wesson said. “For him to be able at a young age to control his emotions during games like this, you're playing a blue-blood team, you're going to have a lot of hype. Him coming out being a young guy and showing that poise, being able to make plays, and when he gets emotional being able to calm down and go onto the next play, is big.”

It's not easy to do when you're the focal point of every opposing game plan, as Wesson experienced last season. Carton hasn't risen to that level yet, but he entered the Kentucky game as the team's second-leading scorer at 10.7 points per game.

In previous top-10 wins, Carton was a complementary piece rather than the star. He had 11 points on 4-of-10 shooting in 20 minutes against Villanova and was mostly a non-factor in the win at North Carolina, finishing with eight points on four shots in 19 minutes.

Against Kentucky, he played a career-high 28 minutes and had the ball in his hands during more important moments than in any other game so far. Carton went into the game for the final time with 15:56 to play and the Ohio State lead at 42-39 and did not come out of the lineup for the remainder of the game.

During that stretch, he blocked three shots, was 3 of 3 from the field, 4 of 4 from the free-throw line and did not have a turnover. He also knifed into the paint and stole the ball from Nick Richards with 5:58 to play to keep the Ohio State lead at three points. Carton was unavailable for postgame interviews as he hurried to catch a flight home for Christmas.

“It's just as important to me (as his offense),” coach Chris Holtmann said of that steal. “He made a critical play there. He's got strong hands. He's quick. He anticipated well, and when he's alert off the ball defensively he can be really effective.”

Carton's progression has as much to do with the belief that Ohio State's best basketball still lies ahead as anything. Where last season's team also jumped out to an 11-1 start but stagnated from there, Carton is still growing into a player who can impact the game for longer stretches of time.

He's already got the emotion figured out. His basket inside the paint with 1:17 to play forced a Kentucky timeout with the Ohio State lead up to seven. As play stopped, Carton faced his teammates, balled his fists and screamed “Let's go!” as they embraced him near midcourt.

“I think he did a good job with the emotion of the game,” Holtmann said. “Give him credit: He made a lot of plays.”