While the Big Blue Nation is fixated on the intrastate taking place in New Orleans on Saturday, the tennis team has their sights on the No. 3 Georgia Bulldogs for top spot in the Southeastern Conference. With both teams sitting undefeated (6-0) in the conference, this weekend pits two top-10 teams against each other with a chance to get a leg up in the race for a conference championship.
For No. 9 Kentucky (18-4, 6-0), this weekend is an opportunity to see just where they stand amongst the nation's elite. Head coach Dennis Emery says Georgia is a measuring stick to determine where their team is.
"There's no question," said Emery. "A lot of people use (Georgia) as that. Georgia, what (Manny Diaz) has done really (well) is maintain a top-six ranking despite whoever he puts on the court. He's been able to maintain that top-six ranking, which is something everyone in the conference has had trouble doing."
It's a healthy rivalry in that Kentucky has been able to beat them over the years, but it has been up and down. While Georgia has remained among the top teams in the country consistently, Kentucky has shown up sporadically.
"The first time we really came up to challenge them was '88," said Emery. "We won in '88 and '89. Won the conference in '92 beating them. So, we've been a little out; they've been consistent. But when we've been good, we've been really good. And we're very good this year."
And they results so far this spring back Emery up.
Kentucky has defeated quite a few of the best teams in the country, but lost to a few as well. UK has played 17 matches this spring against teams currently ranked in the top 70 in the nation, including a 6-3 mark against top-25 teams. So far this spring, UK has wins over No. 7 Pepperdine, No. 11 Florida, No. 15 Auburn, No. 18 Tulsa, No. 23 Indiana, No. 25 Texas A&M, No. 27 LSU, No. 33 North Carolina State, No. 39 Arkansas, No. 40 South Carolina, No. 41 Notre Dame, No. 60 Louisiana-Lafayette and No. 66 Alabama.
That qualifies as "very good."
A daunting schedule like Kentucky has faced this season can ruin a season in an instant, but instead, this "fantastic" bunch, as Emery calls it, led by seniors Eric Quigley and Eric Musialek as well as junior Anthony Rossi have risen to the occasion. Emery feels their schedule has prepared them for Georgia and a deep run into the postseason.
"We schedule the way we schedule so that when we go into these situations we'll be able to compete," said Emery. "We've played Ohio State twice who is number two in the country: one really good match, one not as good. One really tight one, so we know we're capable. We know we can play at that level. Part of it is the schedule allows us to see the best people, the best teams, the best players, and that certainly helps going into Georgia."
The upper-class trio of Quigley (No. 7), Musialek (No. 18) and Rossi (No. 22) have been dominant this season in singles play. They have played their way into individual top-22 rankings and have been the backbone of this team's success. The Achilles heel for this team has been their lack of production in doubles. The doubles point in the matches they have lost this year have been costly and decisive.
"If we want to achieve our goals at the end of the year, we have to pick it up in doubles," said Emery. "Now, we're getting better in our doubles. We're working hard on our doubles."
Emery believes that earlier in the season, the guys discounted the importance of the doubles point, but as the season progresses, they are starting to realize its significance.
"I think earlier in the year there wasn't a sense among the team, no matter what the coaching staff said, that the doubles was really important, and you have to be fundamentally sound, and you have to do these things," said Emery. "I think as the season's gone on, they've bought in a little bit more and understand how important it is. You don't go far, you don't win national championships, you don't go to Final Fours without winning the doubles."
Emery says that he likes where they are at with the doubles after making some adjustments to the team and a greater focus in practice.
The weekend with Georgia and the improvement of the double's point could go a long way in determining just how good this team is and how far it can go. During the interview, Emery dropped subtle hints and mentions of deep tournament runs and a Final Four.
At a university where all eyes are on the basketball team who has an SEC Championship to their name and Final Four run in progress, Emery has similar visions for his team in the near future. But there's still work to be done for this team to achieve those lofty goals.
"Our goal, early on, has been to go to the Final Four and win an SEC Championship," said Emery. "We're in position where we can do those things. It's certainly not going to be easy. There's seven teams ranked in the top 16 in the conference right now. So that makes it very, very difficult to really feel good about it, no matter where you're at in the season."
But Emery feels the talent and the potential is there to do something special, even with teams like Georgia and others standing in their way.
"We do feel like we have an opportunity, particular as you say, we improve our doubles," said Emery. "We do feel like we have an opportunity to go to the Final Four. We've lost to eventual National Champion the last two years, Southern (California), in the round of 16 and the Elite Eight. We feel like we have a better team this year. We feel like we have a more experienced team this year. We feel like we have a more athletic team this year. A lot of that is the matchups, who you play, who has someone get injured, but we feel like we have the potential to accomplish what we set out to at the beginning of the year."