ATHENS, Ga. — When he glances ahead to next season, Illinois men's tennis coach Brad Dancer sees a team with at least two certainties.
Plenty of potential.
And a pair of big spots to fill.
This season ended Friday when No. 1 USC rolled past No. 16 Illinois in a 4-0 win in the Round of 16 of the NCAA Championships. Illinois made it interesting in the doubles point before USC powered through at the Dan Magill Tennis Complex on Georgia's campus.
USC (30-1) is favored to win its fourth straight NCAA team title — a feat accomplished only once before (Stanford). Illinois (19-8) saw its late-season run, which included a Big Ten tournament title, come to a close.
"I think (USC has) better players," Dancer said. "But I also think they're more experienced in big matches like this. They've been through this so many times before."
Neither team was particularly sharp. USC had to fight for the doubles point before escaping with a 2-1 win. The Illini tandem of Stephen Hoh and Bruno Abdelnour won its doubles match.
Now it's time to look to the future — and next season is a critical one for the program. Illinois' Atkins Tennis Center and Khan Outdoor Tennis Complex is the host site for these same championships a year from now.
Whether the Illini are participants likely will be decided by how well they replace the top two players on their current roster — seniors Dennis Nevolo and Roy Kalmanovich, who will compete in the NCAA singles draw next week.
"That's the big question, honestly," Dancer said. "We're losing a magical piece in Dennis Nevolo. The things he can do and the way he can take command of the court are things you don't see very often. It's very difficult to find what he has.
"Roy maybe hasn't been as consistent, but he can beat any of the top players on any given day. Those are two guys that — you don't want to say (they are) irreplaceable — but they've been two big pieces in what we do."
He added, "We've definitely got some big shoes to fill."
The program welcomes at least four new players — three freshmen and Vanderbilt transfer and Kildeer product Blake Bazarnik, a rising junior. Dancer said there could be up to two more additions to the 2012-13 roster.
"The top three positions will be a little bit 'by committee.' That's something we've done before. That's something I'm comfortable with," he said. "The good thing is we're adding four to five Midwest guys that have orange and blue running through their blood. They relish the idea of coming in and competing for those top spots. They want to play at the highest level and be the next All-Americans at Illinois."
Illinois is optimistic after closing this season with its best tennis. The Illini won six of their final seven matches, including a shocker against Ohio State in the Big Ten title match.
"A month ago we were in over our heads a little bit. And then we turned it around and started playing the way I knew we were capable of playing," Dancer said. "There was a lot of 1-on-1 time and teaching with coaches, and the guys bought into it. This group was great about that. The way we finished is kind of the way we played when we started.
"I think we're thrilled with the finish. And you hate to say thrilled right after you lost. But the way we played down the stretch, that makes you feel good about the direction you're going."