UI coach dreams of holding NCAAs at Atkins Tennis Center

ATHENS, Ga. – Nothing against Athens, but Craig Tiley knows an even better place to hold the NCAA Men's Tennis Championships.

Atkins.

Add eight more outdoor courts to the north, build 2,500 grandstand seats to the west, put up a concessions stand ... and presto, Illinois' Atkins Tennis Center will be ready to host the NCAA Championships.

"We've had architects looking at the current situation, and they gave us a feasibility study of how to get that developed," Illinois athletic director Ron Guenther said. "In getting that done, we'd then be in position to host the national meet, which is what we'd like to do.

"No timetable, but it's on the drawing board."

Tiley, who keeps the blueprints of the new-look Atkins nearby at all times, hopes to get his dream done by 2003.

But before he has his national championship facility, Illinois' seventh-year coach wants to have a national championship banner to hang from the rafters.

This could be his year.

Of all the teams at Illinois, Guenther thinks Tiley's is the closest to giving him his first NCAA title in eight years as athletic director.

"It would set a standard, set a tone for everybody else," Guenther said.

The only team on campus to bring home as much as a Big Ten championship the last two years, Tiley's fourth-ranked Illini (24-3) meet No. 10 LSU (20-5) at 7 a.m. Saturday in the Sweet 16.

Beat Shaq's alma mater at the University of Georgia's Dan Magill Tennis Complex, and all that will stand between Illinois and its first Final Four berth will be the winner of the match between No. 28 San Diego State and No. 19 Virginia Commonwealth.

"There's about seven or eight teams that could win it all," UCLA coach Billy Martin said. "Illinois is definitely one of them."

All Tiley's team has to do is follow these five simple steps:

1. Pound the Pac-10

The Illini might have caught a break last weekend when No. 3 Pepperdine, the highest-seeded team in its quarter of the bracket, slipped up against San Diego State.

Now, if Notre Dame would be so kind to oust UCLA and Minnesota would be a pal and take care of Stanford, the Illini really would be in business.

Their road to a national championship likely would include matchups against both the second-ranked, 15-time NCAA champion Bruins (in the Final Four) and the top-ranked, 16-time champion Cardinal (in the final).

UCLA is one of few national powers Illinois didn't run into during a challenging nonconference schedule. Stanford, which suffered its only loss to UCLA, nearly blew No. 2 against Illinois in February but rallied for a 4-3 win.

"If we were to play Stanford in the finals, we know we can beat them," UI senior Cary Franklin said. "We had match point on them. We know we can do it. But we also know it's all talk until it actually happens."

Before the Illini start worrying about the Pac-10, they need to concern themselves with the SEC, which has put an early end to their last two trips to Georgia. LSU is plenty capable of doing to them what Auburn did in 1998 and Mississippi did in '99.

While Illinois is making its third straight NCAA Championships appearance, the Tigers are back for the 16th time in 17 years. They blitzed Alcorn State and Clemson 4-0 to advance.

2. Get more out of No. 4

That's Jamal Parker's spot in the lineup, and a sore one most of the season for Illinois.

The UI's most athletic player has been its most inconsistent one, too, going 21-16 in singles and 9-10 in duals.

"It's a point that we haven't counted on for so long," Parker said. "If I can sneak in a win, I think it would be a big boost in Athens."

Tiley went a step further.

"If he wins, we'll win," Tiley said.

The sophomore's shown flashes here and there, advancing to the quarterfinals of the Milwaukee Classic in January and winning four of five down the stretch, but he hasn't been as steady as Franklin (28-8), Jeff Laski (28-11), Graydon Oliver (30-7) or Mike Kosta (35-10).

Nor has senior Matt Snyder, another guy Illinois could use a big tournament out of, at No. 6.

"Cary, Mike, Graydon and me have had consistently pretty good results," Laski said. "But sometimes with Jamal and Matt, you don't know what you're going to get."

3. Get nasty

To borrow a phrase from Mike Kosta, Illinois' resident expert on the subject.

"If you have to be obnoxious, if you have to pump your fists, if you have to show him you own the court, do it," the sophomore said. "By no means am I a fan of gamesmanship, but you see it on TV: The strongest competitors, Jordan and those guys, they get nasty. They dig down deep. If they have to say some things to get themselves going, they do it."

The Illini aren't shy about speaking up, either. Tiley wants them to hoot and holler and help each other out, something they do as well as any team in college tennis.

Even Parker, the shy, silent type, is starting to catch on.

"We've had a theme that we're like flying geese," Tiley said. "The reason geese fly in a 'V' formation is because they support each other and have a tough time flying alone. We want to support each other and help each other and feed off each other like the flying geese do.

"The guys have been pretty funny, flapping their wings like geese on the court."

4. Dominate doubles

It's only worth one point, but if the Illini would have won that one point all season, they'd be the one unbeaten team in the country.

The worst they've done in six singles matches is split. They've lost three matches – to Baylor, Duke and Stanford – all by 4-3 margins and all after starting the day down 1-0.

"I've always thought they've been as fundamentally sound in their doubles play as any team in the country right now," Martin said. "For some reason, I've always felt Craig's teams are really quite good in doubles."

But Franklin and friends haven't been as dominant in that department as some of Tiley's other teams. Last year's Illini won 21 straight doubles points before stumbling against Mississippi in the Elite Eight. This year's team is 20-7, two of those losses coming in 6-1 April routs of Wisconsin and Ohio State.

"Doubles is going to be the most important thing in Athens," Franklin said.

5. Perform under pressure

None of them wants to go home feeling like Jakub Teply did after last year's Championships.

With the UI-Mississippi match tied at three, a Final Four berth at stake and all eyes on him, Teply double-faulted to fall 7-5, 7-6 (10-8) at No. 5 singles.

"It was like in NCAA basketball, when the team loses on a last-second shot in the Sweet 16," Kosta said. "We were so close."

If any of them are back in that position in the next four days, Franklin's betting on an ace.

Most of the close calls this year have gone to Illinois, which has lost three 4-3 matches but won five (Fresno State, Tennessee, Kentucky, Minnesota, Michigan).

"I feel pretty comfortable with anybody on the team playing a deciding match," Franklin said. "I think our team might be a little better this year, and we weren't very far off last year."

Nerves shouldn't be an issue for NCAA veterans Franklin, Kosta, Laski, Parker or Snyder, who know how to handle the humidity and the big crowds.

The only Illini who's never experienced it all is Oliver. But he's no stranger to Athens (played two seasons in the SEC at Alabama) or postseason pressure (clinched a 4-3 win against Michigan in the Big Ten tournament semifinals).

"He knows how to handle pressure," Tiley said. "We don't have to worry about that."

NCAA AT-A-GLANCE

An up-close look at the singles lineup Illinois coach Craig Tiley will trot out at this weekend's NCAA Men's Tennis Championships in Athens, Ga.:

NO. 1

Cary Franklin

Sr., Atlanta

Dike Eddleman Award finalist will be tougher for Illinois to replace than Larry Smarr. Four-time Big Ten champ and four-time all-conference choice is one of three players in school history to top 100 wins in both singles (114) and doubles (101). Wins include an upset of Stanford's Alex Kim, the nation's second-ranked singles player, at the National Indoor Championships in February. Tiley believes team MVP got jobbed out of league MVP honors.

NO. 2

Jeff Laski

Sr., Lisle

School's all-time winningest doubles player came up big at last year's NCAA Championships, upsetting nationally ranked opponents from Arizona State and Mississippi. Lineup's lone Land of Lincoln product followed that up with an All-Big Ten senior season, winning 28 singles matches and 28 doubles matches. Hometown Heroes participant will join Franklin in both the NCAA singles and doubles championships next week when the team tournament's through.

NO. 3

Graydon Oliver

Jr., Weston, Fla.

As key a transfer as Battle, Blauser, George or Colangelo. Former Alabama star set a school record with 18 straight singles wins, clinched Illinois' last two matches at the Big Ten tournament and hasn't lost in doubles since March. Like partner Franklin, he hits left-handed, stands 6-foot-4 and comes from the South. One of three Floridians on Tiley's team, UI's Scholar-Athlete Award winner is making his first NCAA Championships appearance.

NO. 4

Jamal Parker

Soph., Denville, N.J.

Tiley calls him "the best athlete playing college tennis right now – bar none." But he'd like his hard hitter to be a little more on the consistent side. Journalism major seems to be over his midseason slump, when he lost six straight to players from Tennessee, Stanford, Georgia, Baylor, Duke and Notre Dame – all NCAA tournament teams. Parker, who shared the team's Player to Watch Award with Mike Kosta, has won four of his last five matches.

NO. 5

Mike Kosta

Soph., Ann Arbor, Mich.

Chatterbox has won more singles matches than any Illini this season (35) and is on pace to break Gavin Sontag's career record (120). Tiley thinks he'll be the Franklin of the future – and not just because he's been known to drop his racket and blow on his hands after serving up aces, either. Winner of the team's Spirit Award was one of five Big Ten players to win 30-plus matches during the regular season.

NO. 6

Matt Snyder

Sr., Rye, N.Y.

The second-most famous sports figure to come out of Rye, proud hometown of Chris Berman. Bleach blond might not have the reputation of Franklin or Laski, but he's also a productive member of the winningest class in school history. Snyder went undefeated in Big Ten doubles play as a junior (9-0) and undefeated in Big Ten singles play as a senior (7-0). Says his most prized possession is his dog named Lunch.

Sections (3):Illini Sports, Sports, Tennis
Categories (3):Illini Sports, Tennis, Sports

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