URBANA – For all they've won and done the last four years in the Big Ten, it's been one and done every time at the next stage for Craig Tiley's seventh-ranked Illini.
Can't very well win a first NCAA tennis title without winning the first NCAA tournament match.
"We haven't proven anything yet," Illinois senior Gavin Sontag said. "Winning the Big Ten, sure, it's exciting, but it's not the heart of tennis. It's not California or the SEC, where all the good teams are. But all those teams will be in the NCAAs, so we have a chance to prove a lot now."
Illinois (25-3) will try to reverse its NCAA tournament fortunes at 1 p.m. Saturday against a program that's given it some postseason problems in the past.
Northwestern (11-12) made the Illini's first NCAA tournament trip a short one in 1996, taking out Tiley's higher-seeded team 4-2 in a first-round match in South Bend, Ind. One May later, the Big Ten champion Illini received a first-round NCAA bye, only to get upset 4-0 by the same blasted Wildcats at Atkins Tennis Center.
"That's all fun to talk about, but it's not going to mean a whole lot on Saturday," Northwestern coach Paul Torricelli said.
The Illini, 0-3 all time in NCAA matches, could be heavier favorites to win this weekend's four-team Midwest Regional than Menifee is at the Preakness.
They breezed by Northwestern 6-1 in Evanston already this season. They beat Michigan 6-1 three weeks ago at the Wolverines' place. And Vanderbilt, the fourth team in the field, brings an 11-13 record to town.
But there's no way you'll catch Oliver Freelove and friends daydreaming about the Sweet 16, the next stop for this weekend's winner.
Not after what happened in '96 and '97.
"That's still in my mind a little bit," said Big Ten Player of the Year Freelove, who's blowing off commencement for this. "I'd like to rectify that."
Said Sontag: "It's always nice to show them who's the boss of Illinois."
Unlike previous years, top seeds like Illinois now have to earn trips to Athens, Ga., site of the Sweet 16. Eight teams used to receive automatic bids there, and eight others had to fight through regionals to make it.
Last May, the Illini won a free pass to Georgia, where they were upset 4-1 by Auburn. The Tigers had won a regional the weekend before. The Illini had it off.
"I think that was a real disadvantage for us," Freelove said. "We hadn't played a match in two weeks, and they'd played four or five days before. I much prefer it this way. Everyone's kind of starting out on the same note."
The Illini come in as the No. 3 seed in the 64-team field behind UCLA and Stanford. They stunned four-time defending NCAA champ Stanford 4-3 in February and would love another crack at UCLA, which they fell to 4-1 the next day in the finals of the National Indoor Championships.
They were without their one and only All-American, Gavin Sontag, the last time they bumped into the Bruins. After missing almost three months of action with a fractured hip, the senior returns to the UI lineup this weekend.
"It's probably one of the better feelings in my life," Sontag said.
This weekend's your last chance to catch Sontag, Freelove and Jakub Teply, the winningest class in school history, at home, and Tiley hopes for a big crowd. Northwestern always packs them in when Illinois comes to Evanston, and Tiley wouldn't mind giving the Wildcats a taste of their own medicine.
"We don't care for their fans," Tiley said. "The last time we were up there, these guys who had been partying outside were sitting right on the court, smashing these wooden blocks together. You couldn't hear yourself think."
It took Tiley a handful of Excedrin to get rid of his migraine the next day.
"If anyone's having a graduation party and they want to come over, we might even supply something for them in the North fields," Tiley said. "We would encourage a good, rowdy group to come over."