College Tennis Review: Is Your Time Speeding Forward or Off the Rails?
Jeff McMillan, Tennis Atlantic
April is crunch time in college tennis and this season has been a wild one thus far which will undoubtedly set up for a wild finish to the regular season. Here is my look at how certain teams are doing heading down the final tracks of the season.
(the real fun gets started in the off the rails segment at the end.)
These teams that are hitting their stride just at the right time and show no signs of slowing.
Wake Forest: The Deacs are on an absolute tear right now and are looking ominous to any team in the country. Even before the massive win in Chapel Hill they were looking great by plowing through several ranked teams. Sunday’s win in Chapel Hill was a culmination of great fight and showed exactly what Wake Forest is capable of moving forward. A huge matchup with Virginia looms.
Georgia: For the early half of the season UGA was not looking all that imposing, certainly not compared to their lofty standards. Ranked as low as 19, the Dawgs were starting to become somewhat overlooked nationally. All that has changed in a hurry in the last few weeks. Georgia revved up their speed on the tracks with a huge home win over Ohio State on March 20th and have turned the speed to maximum following the dominating performance in College Station this past Friday. Many people expected A&M to win that match and believed that if Georgia was to win it would be in the fashion of sneaking out a 4-3 thriller. Instead the Bulldogs punched the Aggies in the mouth and stole a 4-1 win. They are now 8-0 in the SEC and it looks like once again the SEC title will be heading to Athens.
SMU: Even before the last couple of week this was already a great season for the Mustangs of SMU. Then they decided to turn things up yet another notch by knocking off top 10 Oklahoma State and conference rival USF within the span of little over a week. Now the talk has shifted from will the Mustangs make the NCAA tournament to can they actually host a regional? Regardless of if they host one or not, nobody will want to see the red hot Ponies as their opponent as the season comes to a head.
TCU: This is a team that has not lost since February and one that has not lost at all this year on an open air court. They have not been without their tests but it seems like it’s becoming a college tennis regularity to see a TCU twitter video of Head Coach Roditi celebrating a big win as the Frogs yet again get the victory. The most recent example of this was their heart stopping victory over Texas A&M in front of a hostile crowd. TCU was definitely considered to be a title contender before the year began and they have not shown any signs of disappointing that expectation.
Southern Cal: The whispers of a USC down year had turned to full volume statements following the stunning loss to Washington. But in college tennis things can change in one weekend. The past weekend the Trojans dominated their NorCal conference rivals to make a huge statement. In both matches, the Trojans dropped the doubles point to Cal and Stanford respectively and in both they stormed back in singles to end up with convincing wins. It goes without saying that no matter what the season is, nobody should ever look past the USC Trojans in May.
Northwestern: The Wildcats have been a pleasant surprise this year. People expected them to have a good team but I don’t think anyone anticipated them being this good. The guys from Evanston have only 2 losses on their resume (one of which has since been avenged) thus far and have shown no signs of slowing down. They look set to host a regional as they continue to impress week after week.
These teams might are starting to find the track just at the right time
Duke: This extremely young team has had a pretty disappointing year for Duke standards. The Blue Devils fell out of the rankings for a couple weeks in March and the season looked to be shot. But thanks to a good win over NC State on Friday, suddenly things are starting to look up for the Blue Devils. Even more encouraging than the win over NC State was the fight they gave Virginia in match largely expected to be a rout. If they can bring that level of play for the ACC tournament then they can be surprisingly dangerous. (I say ACC tournament because the rest of their regular season schedule is unfortunate with very tough matches vs Wake and UNC and a match vs Clemson which will give them no benefit to winning)
Washington: The NCAA tournament drought for the Huskies looks to be coming to an end this year. The team has shown a lot in recent weeks with solid wins, punctuated with the cornerstone win over Southern Cal. Some tough Pac 12 matches remain vs Stanford, Cal and Oregon but the Huskies look to be playing their best tennis at the right time.
Nebraska: The Cornhusker improvement has not necessarily been shown in wins so far but in how they have played in recent matches. They are starting to really compete vs every team in the Big 10. Only a matter of time before they pull off the desired upset win.
Alabama: Things did not look great for Alabama early in the year and it took a while for things to turn around but now the Crimson Tide look to be finding their game. They are in battles with every SEC team now and most recently pulled out an important win at Ole Miss. They have played themselves into a good position to make the NCAA tournament.
Loyola Marymount: The Lions have been one of the best unranked teams for the past couple of seasons, being right there and threatening ranked teams, so close to the top 75 promised land. Finally they have gotten there this year and are looking like a legitimate contender in the West Coast Conference thanks to 3 consecutive wins over ranked teams.
Utah State: Utah State has quietly built a very solid program out in Logan, one that been a consistent force in the Mountain West. The Aggies have been playing good tennis in recent weeks. They look to be emerging as the favorite to win the Mountain West which is the most evenly matched conference top to bottom in the country.
These teams are started to slow down when it matters most
Oklahoma State: Not that long ago Oklahoma State was looking very dangerous and like a national title contender. Now they are looking very vulnerable to an early NCAA tournament upset. The Cowboys were badly hurt when their solid #2 player Temur Ismailov pulled a KU Singh (apologies to UGA fans) and abandoned the team midstream to go play in the pros. Suddenly the Pokes lineup is looking mighty thin and just at the wrong time as they are about to start the brutal Big 12 conference schedule.
Stanford: Just how many chances does this team need before people give up on them as a serious contender? All year people parrot how talented Stanford is and how they are going to start gelling at any moment now. I was one of these, I thought this year’s Stanford’s team was finally a legitimate one. But what do they do when they are presented with opportunity? Get blown away in singles by the LA Pac 12 power firm. They do not have a single signature win this year and are running out of opportunities once again.
USF: Similar to Oklahoma State, the Bulls were looking great in the early parts of the year but have since fallen off the pace. And it’s now looking possible that they are the 4th best team in the AAC (behind Tulane, Tulsa and SMU). The loss to SMU on Saturday was a real eye opener to just how much this team is starting to skid on the tracks. They do not have a real solid option in the lower parts of the lineup and Roberto Cid is having to do too much on his own at the moment.
Notre Dame: The Fighting Irish are 2-6 in their last 8 ACC games and things are not looking good for their hopes of an NCAA tournament berth. Missing the NCAA tournament would be a pretty big disappointment for this veteran heavy team and it will be very hard for them to do so now.
Harvard: A heartbreaking loss for Harvard on Sunday vs Columbia was the cap on what has been a disappointing few weeks for the Crimson. They have lost to a number of teams that are considered to be around their level. They are just losing too many 50/50 matches. They need to find a way to get the killer instinct back.
Drake: After a hot middle part of the year, Drake has hit rough sledding recently. They would not be under the skidding category if it was not for the horrendous loss to William & Mary that they suffered in their most recent match. This match alone is the one that is putting Drake’s tournament chances in jeopardy (still a high chance to win their almost nonexistent conference though).
Off The Rails
These teams have lost the map, way off the tracks and have no way back on
Tennessee: Hey what are the Vols doing on this list?? They are on a 5 match tear! Well as impressive as it is to beat Murray State 4 times in a row when they do not field a full lineup in any of the matches, unfortunately the Vols still end up way off the rails. 0-8 in the SEC and not close to sniffing the top 75. The days of JP Smith, Rhyne Williams and Tennys Sandgren seem like eons ago now. Even the days of Reese and Libietis seem like fairytales now. One thing Tennessee can feel good about is that some teams still consider beating them warrants an excuse to have a mosh pit locker room celebration (see the South Carolina Gamecocks). Any more seasons like this though and teams will treat wins over Tennessee how they treat wins over Boston College. Oh wait some teams consider that win to be cause for rapturous celebration as well (see Clemson Tigers).
Iowa: At one point things were actually looking good for Iowa. They were in the top 35 in the rankings and it looked like they were going to have a rare good season for Iowa tennis. But then Big 10 play started. Well actually two of their worst losses came to non Big 10 teams (Lamar and Cal Poly got em). And they are no longer being competitive, many of the recent losses being routs. Good news for Iowa fans? They can still enjoy watching a 125 pound guy roll around with another 125 pound guy for a chance at an NCAA individual title on youtube replay (spoiler alert… The Hawkeye loses)
Arizona: This selection could be very controversial because it’s debatable whether the Arizona train was ever on the rails in the first place. Naoki Takeda does his best to try and drive the team forward but he alone can’t save a program that seems content to be completely irrelevant (several years now that Arizona has been a non-factor). I’m not sure you’ll believe me… but there’s a legend out there that Arizona once beat UCLA in tennis. In 2010 according to legend. Can’t possibly be true. Let’s stick to the true stories of how the Wildcats took down mighty UC Riverside.
San Diego State: San Diego is a very beautiful city. However it is probably a little less beautiful when you are stuck playing 2nd fiddle to a cross-town school that is 1/6th your enrollment size. This was actually supposed to be a good season for SDSU (the heart-eaters, not the fluffy tails from South Dakota) but they have never got on track all season. While they are supposed to be challenging San Diego they are falling behind even teams like UCSB and Santa Clara. Now they have played a tough schedule and the Mountain West is so evenly matched that anything is possible still for the Aztecs.
Baylor: It was always going to be crushing news for Baylor that the Baylor tennis training camps in Budapest and Dortmund would taking a year off this year but even still Baylor was expected to be a good team once again. Compared to the rest of the teams in this section, they are very good but for Baylor standards it is not good. Missing the NCAA tournament is a real possibility as the remaining parts of their schedule are brutal and they just failed to cash in on their best chance for a big win (at home vs Texas Tech. This is about as off the rails as Baylor tennis ever gets.
UTSA: I understand the concept of a down season after you lose several of your top players but how does a team go from a breakout year in 2015 to a 2-17 year in 2016? 2-17. (The Roadrunners actually have 3 wins but they never entered in the win over UIW on ITA so we can’t quite count that one can we?) When you fall behind Texas Rio Grand Valley in tennis after losing to them, a university that has existed for less than a year, you know things are bad. This tennis team does not do a very good job of distracting UTSA fans (they exist? Well I lived in San Antonio for 2 years and I met about 8 in a city of 1.3 million in that time so yes they exist) from their 3-9 football or their 5-27 men’s basketball team.