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Thriving men's tennis squad looks to continue to impose will in Sweet 16

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Kevin Lai (left) and Tom Jomby (right) will look to get UK off to a strong start in doubles Thursday night. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) Kevin Lai (left) and Tom Jomby (right) will look to get UK off to a strong start in doubles Thursday night. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Classes are out for summer, but the Kentucky men's tennis team has continued schooling its opponents thus far in the NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats have outclassed both Western Michigan and Virginia Tech en route to yet another Sweet 16, the first under first-year head coach Cedric Kauffmann.

With the spring semester in the rear view mirror, Kauffmann's players have been able to put their sole focus on the game of tennis and making a deep run into the postseason.

"I think they're a little bit more relaxed. They're done with their exams," said Kauffmann. "We had an excellent semester in the classroom (men's tennis scholarship student athletes combined for a 3.12 grade-point average). It was kind of a busy spring with both tennis and school, so I think they're a little bit more relaxed and a little bit more smiles, but we have a tough task ahead."

That tough task goes by the name of a familiar heated rival: Duke.

The UK vs. Duke rivalry is always a heated matchup on the hardwood and this Sweet 16 matchup between No. 8 Kentucky and No. 9 Duke at 8 p.m. ET on Thursday in Champaign-Urbana, Ill.,  should live up to those standards.

The Blue Devils, perceived as one of the nation's top teams in the preseason, have won 18 matches this year in which they did not surrender a point to their opponents. The Wildcats, by comparison, have only managed eight such victories, although they play the Southeastern Conference, a tennis powerhouse.

"They're a very, very talented team," said Kauffmann. "I think at the beginning of the year they were kind of projected to be a top-three, top-four team. I think of all the matches they've played, 16 or 17 have not gotten a point off them. It's going to be a tough match."

Kauffmann says the key will be taking the first point up for grabs in doubles. From there, it will make the task of bringing Duke down and advancing to the Elite Eight much easier. So far in the NCAA Tournament, that's been the first part of UK's lesson plan

In each of the first two rounds, Kentucky has jumped out to a quick one-point advantage with doubles victories thanks to the play of duos Tom Jomby and Kevin Lai; Beck Pennington and Ryuji Hirooka; and Anthony Rossi and Juan Pablo Murra. Each tandem has been instrumental in either the first or second rounds in helping UK achieve the doubles point.

"I think it's good because we won the doubles in both, so we have a little bit of momentum," said Kauffmann. "Only one player lost and Beck (Pennington) was hurt, so nobody in the singles round lost a match. If we had anyone playing in the lineup that had lost two matches, it might hurt us a little bit just because there may be doubts, but everyone is playing pretty good."

Most importantly, Kentucky's No. 1 and No. 2 players in Rossi and Jomby have answered the bell in the first two rounds. Rossi battled WMU's No. 1 in a match that was eventually abandoned when junior Grant Roberts clinched the first-round match on the court beside Rossi. He then went on to dominate Virginia Tech's No. 1 player, making quick work in straight sets. Jomby has overwhelmed each of his opponents playing No. 2.

The Wildcats' one-two punch will give them a chance against anyone they play in this tournament.

"They have one of the best No. 1s in the country, but on our end we have one of the best No. 1s in the country," said Kauffmann. "We believe in Rossi. We believe our one-two punch can play with anyone in the country like I said in the first couple rounds."

As UK advances deeper and deeper into the tournament, the pressure will mount. That's OK according to Kauffmann because they've been preparing for pressure moments like this all season.

"I hope it mounts a little bit because I think they understand it's the end of the year and if we lose, we're going to go home," said Kauffmann. "We try to put pressure on every match through the year through the fall and the spring.

"I hope because we've done that, there's not going to be a big gap in the difference of pressure between September, January, until now. I hope there's a small jump, but not a big jump. If it was a big jump, I'd tell you my guys will play really tight. We kind of stress that every match."

Kentucky doesn't expect to be able to roll over its opponent Thursday night. While the Cats have been able to put strong matches together and win 4-0 and 4-1, Kauffmann is still looking for his team to play strong across the board for all seven points. Going up against an opponent like Duke, there would be no better time than now for his team to put together a complete match.

"We've got to be ready and we've got to play seven points," said Kauffmann. "If we're only going to play four or five points against a team like Duke then we're not going to get through."

For that to happen, it's all going to come down to just how much his freshmen gained from their first two matches in the NCAA Tournament and their first collegiate season. With three freshmen in the starting lineup, it's going to be up to them if Kentucky is going to maximize its potential.

"I think our youngsters have gone through the first and second rounds and know what it's about," said Kauffmann. "I'm still waiting for our seven points to be played and I hope it comes Thursday."

The true key for success will come down to if Kentucky continues to play its brand of tennis. The Wildcats have done that so far in the tournament, and it will be crucial for UK to continue to impose its will on its opponents the rest of the way.

When the Wildcats take the court against Duke, they'll look to play the role of professor and let the summer schooling continue.

"If we're playing our game, we're going to be fine and have a chance to win," said Kauffmann. "If we're playing someone else's game, it's going to be very tough. We're going to have to execute our game plan that we have given them for their game."

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