Off to its best start under coach Thad Matta, Ohio State appears to be the class of a competitive Big Ten.
Before getting a chance to start proving it in conference play, the No. 2 Buckeyes are unlikely to falter Monday night at home against another overmatched opponent in Tennessee-Martin.
This season marked the second time in Matta’s seven seasons that Ohio State had opened with 11 consecutive victories, but the current 12-0 record marks the program’s best start since opening 17-0 in 1990-91.
The Buckeyes are outscoring opponents by an average of 26.3 points and have won each game by double digits. They’re the only Big Ten team that has yet to lose, part of a conference which includes five ranked teams.
The Buckeyes average 81.3 points to lead the conference and scored more than 90 for the second straight game Thursday in a 92-63 rout of Oakland, Mich. Deshaun Thomas led six players in double figures with 17 points.
That balance was a welcome sight for the Buckeyes. They had only three players score in double figures in four of their first five games this month as they received big individual performances. Freshman Jared Sullinger scored 40 points Dec. 9 against IUPUI and 30 versus South Carolina on Dec. 18, three days after Jon Diebler scored 29 against Florida-Gulf Coast, and David Lighty had 29 on Tuesday against UNC-Asheville.
Ohio State now has five players averaging in double figures.
“That’s nice to see,” Diebler said after Thursday’s win. “Especially on a night like this, we played pretty good defense. There were times we struggled offensively, but we had a night where I was hitting, Dave was hitting, Sully was hitting shots. It’s nice because it’s hard to defend us when we have six guys in double figures.”
Sullinger leads the team with 17.5 points and 10.1 rebounds per game, ranking second in the nation in each category among freshmen. The 6-foot-9, 280-pound forward could present a big problem for a Tennessee-Martin team which has only one player taller than 6-7 and none that weigh more than 250 pounds.
The Skyhawks (4-8), from the Ohio Valley Conference, have lost their last 10 games against ranked opponents by an average of 26.2 points.
They dropped to 2-8 this season against Division I competition Thursday, losing 66-54 at home to Murray State. Terence Smith scored a career-high 20 points - more than double his average entering the game - but Tennessee-Martin blew a nine-point lead in the second half.
“We found out tonight that Terence has a chance to be a special player,” coach Jason James said. “Right before our eyes, he grew up tonight with some of the moves he made on the wing late in the shot clock and his ability to get to the free throw line. Now we are going to come to expect that every night.”
A duplicate performance against Ohio State may be difficult, as the Buckeyes are giving up 54.9 points per game to rank second in the Big Ten.
The schools last met Dec. 14, 1998, with Ohio State winning 92-56.