The Buckeyes (7-0) are off to their best start since the 1990-91 season when they were 17-0 before a loss at Michigan State on Jan. 31, 1991.
Ohio State is coming off of a clutch 70-67 win at Iowa State last Saturday. Senior guard Je'Kel Foster erupted for a career-high 28 points and was named the Big Ten's Player of the Week. The 6-2 guard from Natchez, Miss., leads OSU in scoring with 17.1 points per game. He is shooting a blistering 59.5 percent from 3-point range (22 of 37).
Tennessee State (2-3) is coming off of an 84-74 loss at Southern Mississippi on Monday. The Tigers gave Georgia Tech all it could handle earlier in the season, but lost, 82-72.
"Tennessee State, they're a lot like an Iowa State," OSU coach Thad Matta said. "They're going to pressure, they play an up-tempo pace and this will be, once again, a fun style for our guys to play in. I think our guys are looking forward to the challenge (Friday) night."
Bruce Price, a 6-3 junior guard, leads Tennessee State offensively with 20.4 points a game. A total of 48 of his 102 points have come from the foul line where he is connecting on 74 percent of his 65 attempts. Three others – 6-4 senior guard Wayne Arnold (13.2 ppg), 6-7 junior forward Clarence Matthews (14.0 ppg.) and 6-6 senior forward Kareem Grant (14.2 ppg) – average double figures for the Tigers. Wayne (9.8 rpg) and Matthews (7.2 rpg) lead the team in rebounding.
The Tigers do not have a deep bench. Their best player off the pine might be 6-11 junior center Larry Turner who became eligible earlier this week and scored one point in TSU's loss to Southern Miss.
"They've got an experienced team and they've got the Turner guy, a transfer from Oklahoma, which gives them even more depth than they already had," Matta said. "They've got five guys who have proven they can put big numbers up. So it's not like one guy is going to come in here and try and beat you. They have a collective group that is going to try and do that."
Ohio State, ranked No. 22 in the USA Today/Coaches poll, and No. 24 by the Associated Press, seems to be a mentally tougher team this season. Last year, they struggled at times in close games, especially on the road. But erasing an eight-point second-half deficit to beat Iowa State was a good accomplishment.
"I think that experience has helped that," Matta said. "And just being more in-tuned after a year of what we're trying to get done and having a better understanding. We've probably worked more with situations this year. The only situation I think we haven't worked on is having a big lead in the second half with 10 minutes to play. I think those are things, when you have your quote, unquote, system in place, you have more of a luxury in practice of working different situations and I think our guys have taken to that."
Matta was asked if he feels his team "got over the hump" with the win at ISU.
"I hope we did," he said. "I hope it gave us a sense that we can get the job done on the road. We can make the plays both offensively and defensively and I think those things hopefully add it. And not confidence in ourselves, but confidence in what we're doing as a team and in our system."
Ohio State sophomore point guard Jamar Butler is having a solid season thus far with averages of 9.8 points and a team-best 4.3 assists per game.
He struggled with his shot last year, but he's shooting a clean 50 percent from 3-point range this year (11 of 22). He's also one of the Buckeyes' best free throw shooters at 80 percent (20 of 25).
"Well, I think Jamar, as you saw last year, I think he felt his way through his freshman year," Matta said. "The one thing I was happy with is he took good care of the basketball. I think that he's more confident, both offensively and defensively. I think Jamar is playing himself into one of the best on-ball defenders in the country. I think the fact that he's shooting the ball better is really helping his offensive game and I think he has a better understanding of what we're trying to get done offensively. He's seeing and adapting better to situations."
As a team, Ohio State is shooting 72.5 percent from the foul line. The Buckeyes were not a good free throw shooting team a year ago.
"We talked about shooting 72 percent this season, which would be up six percent from last season," Matta said. "We've shot a lot more free throws than we did maybe last year. Recording them in the offseason, the nine-week period we had in the spring we shot a ton and kept track of them. The preseason workouts, into the season, we chart every free throw we take in practice and I think that's helped us – just repetition."
Shooting well from the line is nothing new for Butler. The 2004 Ohio Mr. Basketball recipient has been a clutch free throw shooter his entire life.
"Yeah, I've always shot a good percentage from the line," Butler said.
However, Butler is not the Buckeyes' best free throw shooter right now. That distinction would go to, who else, Foster. He is shooting 84 percent from the line and also leads the Big Ten in field goal percentage at 68.3.
Foster was a solid player last year, but he's elevated his play to another level this season.
"My teammates are doing a good job of finding me for good looks and the shots are falling," Foster said. "I give it all to my teammates."
Junior guard Ron Lewis is the Buckeyes' sixth man this year and he's embraced the role. The 6-4 Columbus Brookhaven product is second on the team in scoring at 12.7 points per game.
Senior forward J.J. Sullinger is also having a strong year. He is averaging 12.1 points, but more importantly is third in the Big Ten in rebounding with 9.3 per game.
Matta challenged the 6-5 Sullinger to hit the boards this year and Sullinger has met the challenge. But can he keep this "Rodmanian" pace up?
"Yeah, I think he can, I really do," Matta said. "Because the clips we showed him from last year all came from Big Ten games. Rebounding to me is a mentality, it's a mindset. Having his length and athleticism obviously helps and it's also being prideful in what you do and he's done a great job with it."
Sullinger has a 36-inch vertical leap and is one of the strongest players on the team. He's always been a good rebounder for a player his size, but he's crashing the glass harder this year.
"Pretty much it's a mindset," Sullinger said. "I sat down with the coaches in the offseason and we just went over film and looked at how we could become a better basketball team. And they told me when I hit the glass, good things happen. So, I try and make an effort to go to the glass every time, no matter if it's defensive or offensive rebounds, I'm going to try and get my hand on as many as I can."
But can he continue being one of the best rebounders in the physical Big Ten?
"I hope so man," Sullinger said. "I just got to keep going after them. I can't get the ones I don't go after, so if I keep going after them I'll be in pretty good shape. I just want to do whatever it takes to help this team win."