Postseason aspirations still in sight for Illinois men's tennis

Postseason aspirations still in sight for Illinois men's tennis

URBANA — The new format for this year's NCAA tournament meant Illinois men's tennis coach Brad Dancer had a conversation with his team before the season started about how the postseason would work.

It also set a clear goal for the Illini to chase.

Starting with this season's national tournament, the 16 teams that advance from the first and second rounds will participate in two-team super regionals on the campus of the higher-seeded team. The top 16 seeded teams — like in the past — will still host the first and second rounds.

"We want them to have that understanding and know what they are playing for at the end of the season, but after that, we really don't address it with them," Dancer said. "To me, playing at home during the NCAA tournament is so much fun. Some of my most special and fond memories are from when we have gotten to host and have done really well. For us to get to that place that's a big goal for us and has been since the beginning of the year."

A season ago, the Illini — seeded eighth — knocked off Marquette and Vanderbilt at Atkins Tennis Center in the NCAA first and second rounds before sweeping TCU in Chapel Hill, N.C., in the round of 16. Illinois, however, bowed out in its NCAA quarterfinal matchup against eventual national champion Wake Forest, falling 4-0.

Forced to replace three-time ITA All-America selection Aleks Vukic and another lineup stalwart in Aron Hiltzik, Aleks Kovacevic has stepped into the forefront for Illinois.

Kovacevic has been flawless at No. 1 singles, posting a 12-0 record for the Illini, who are ranked 14th nationally, and again are in position to start the NCAA postseason at home.

Illinois (13-6, 7-0 Big Ten) will also have a chance to improve its positioning this weekend, with a marquee slate of matches in the final regular season homestand at Atkins Tennis Center.

The Illini start with today's 6 p.m. matchup against Penn State (15-6, 5-2) followed by Sunday's noon tilt against No. 2 Ohio State (22-2, 7-0) in a matchup that will decide the conference's regular-season champion.

"They've been the team for us that we have had to beat every year to win the Big Ten title," Dancer said of the Buckeyes, who are seeking their 14th straight conference title. "That's a credit to them. First for us is Penn State, but if we get that shot at an undefeated team on Sunday, it's going to be a really good matchup."

Despite his team's perfect record in conference, Dancer still feels Illinois has yet to reach its true potential, even with steady performances from the likes of Alex Brown, who is 7-6 at No. 2 singles, and Zeke Clark, who is 7-7 at the No. 3 position.

The Illini's best combination in doubles has been Vuk Budic and Gui Gomes, who are 7-2 this season and are currently on a five-match winning streak.

"I think, to be honest, we have a lot of talent on this team," Dancer said. "Consistency has been one of our big issues, and if we can get that consistency back, then we can achieve some of those goals that we set out for ourselves before the beginning of the year."

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