It's not often that a coach has the best player in the history of his program playing the best tennis of his career in the middle of his final postseason run. It's less often still that that player is surrounded by the arguably the best assemblage of talent in school history. Having those things converge with an uncommon sense of togetherness among the team, that might happen once in a career.
Beyond this season, the future remains bright for Kentucky men's tennis, and Emery will field contenders again, just as he has throughout his tenure. But this time it feels a little different. This time Emery has no intention of letting this chance get away from his Wildcats.
"When you're here, when you're at Kentucky in the SEC, the one thing I've learned over 30 years is when you have a good team, you better win," Emery said.
For the third year in a row, UK will play in the Sweet 16. There, the No. 6 Cats (28-5) will face No. 11 Stanford (19-8) on Friday at 4 p.m. in Athens, Ga. A victory would send Kentucky to the Elite Eight for the second straight season, but UK has never advanced past the national quarterfinals. In the minds of players and coaches, this is the year to break through that glass ceiling.
"It's important when you're good to seal the deal and put the nail of the coffin and that's what we have to do this week coming up," Emery said. "We graduate our No. 1 (Quigley) and 2 (Alex Musialek) and though we feel like we're going to be good next year, this our time."
Emery has no trouble identifying what makes this team different. Assistant coaches Cedric Kauffmann and Matt Emery have made a difference in developing and mentoring players, but even more importantly, the young Wildcats they get to coach are pretty good too.
"We're just better than we have been in terms of our talent. We have the ability to make mistakes and outrun them, out-jump them, out-serve them sort of," Emery said. "Our talent level is significantly better this year. We're more athletic. I've been around long enough, I had forgotten how important it was to have the best players."
Mix in the fire inside of every member of this team and you have something special.
"We've got a lot of character," Emery said. "These guys really want to win. It's the most competitive team I have ever been around and it's hard to describe. They're very, very competitive, both individually and as a team. They take a lot of pride in what they're doing."
In case advancing in the NCAA Tournament wasn't enough motivation, the Cats will have the extra edge of a rematch with the Cardinal, one of just four teams to defeat them all season. Back in February, UK was just a day removed from its first defeat of the season, a heartbreaking 4-3 decision at the hands of Ohio State, when then-No. 9 Stanford came calling. In a rare occurrence, it was the Cats' depth at the bottom half of the singles lineup that felled them.
"It was a match I felt like we definitely should have won the first time around," Emery said of the 4-1 loss. "I felt like I necessarily didn't do a very good job preparing our team. We played great at one, two and three. We played probably our worst match of the year at four, five, six and in the doubles."
Though it has been nearly three months, the loss is fresh in the Wildcats' minds, a stinging reminder an eight-day stretch that saw them drop three straight matches, or 60 percent of their total on the season.
"You definitely want to get some revenge," Quigley said. "They're definitely a good team, but I think we can play a little better."
The rematch as well the rest of the NCAA Tournament will be played on Georgia's home courts at the Dan McGill Tennis Complex, a venue that calls to mind much more pleasant memories than UK's first opponent there. On March 30, the Wildcats beat the Bulldogs 4-3 in a match that ended up being the difference in UK's first SEC championship in two decades.
"It's a great place to play," Emery said. "It's a venue that our players love to play in. If you could have seen us play Georgia earlier this year, they were just thriving on that situation."
Two seasons ago, the Cats' Sweet 16 run ended in Georgia, a run they built on last year in advancing to the Elite Eight. The Wildcats want to take another step forward into the Final Four, but make no mistake about it, it's not their ultimate goal.
"We just don't want to improve on the previous year, we really want to go all the way," Quigley said.