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."
The 2013-14 season will be John Calipari's fifth as Kentucky head coach. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The timing of John Calipari's Wednesday press conference was a bit strange.
It had been nearly two months since the end of the 2012-13 season, so there wasn't a lot to talk about on that front. Kentucky's underclassmen made their NBA Draft decisions well over a month ago, so those stories were a bit stale. As for Coach Cal's latest top-rated recruiting class, they all signed nearly four weeks ago and won't arrive on campus for another two or three.
Nonetheless, dozens of reporters packed the Memorial Coliseum media room to hear what Coach Cal had to say on a mid-May morning in a scene that would likely only happen in the Bluegrass.
"I don't even know what this is," said an amazed and unsurprised Calipari.
In effect, it was a mini-media day. Calipari was previewing a season of sorts similar to what he'll do during the real thing in about five months, but there weren't any games or even Big Blue Madness to discuss just yet. Instead, the summer - during which the Wildcats will lay the foundation for the team they'll become - was a primary topic of conversation.
The first step will be for Calipari to determine exactly how he will handle the Cats when they return to/arrive in Lexington in June. With that in mind, Coach Cal is taking the entire basketball staff on a retreat beginning next Monday.
"We're going to have a two-day retreat and what we're primarily going to be doing is (figuring out), 'What do each of these kids need from us?' " Calipari said. "Because every one of these kids we're bringing in need to be coached and they need something from us."
Molding his coaching strategy to each of his players will be a particular challenge this season, if only due to simple arithmetic. With eight newcomers and five returnees on scholarship, Calipari will have the deepest team of his UK tenure. That means the message of unselfishness he delivers every year will be even more important.
"More than any team I've had, shared sacrifice is going to matter in this group," Calipari said. "And they knew that coming here. I told every one of them, 'If you want to shoot 30 balls a game, you don't come here. If you want to be the only guy that's playing - the one guy that everybody's talking about - you wouldn't come here.' "
As well as every Cat might understand that in theory, putting into practice is another matter entirely.
"To bring that many together, really going to be a challenge," Calipari said. "The galvanizing part of this will start this summer."
That's why Coach Cal is so committed to pursuing every means to that end, even if he has to do things differently than he's used to.
"We have some other things that we're going to do as a team that I have not done in the past that I think will help this team come together," Calipari said. "Some of it is we will watch some movies together of some teams coming together, of what they had to do to sacrifice for each other."
Movies aside, he didn't reveal many details about his plans just yet, but you can rest assured they are informed in part by this past year. Calipari made sure to point out there were elements of UK's NIT season he is proud of, including one thing he believes could pay dividends in 2013-14.
"It's not just 'Did they get better?' It's 'Did they learn about themselves?' " Calipari said. "Because sometimes you learn about yourself in a season - Are you ready? Marquis Teague - and you change it in the season. Sometimes you can't. You're just too young.
"They learn about themselves in a season, know that this isn't going to work, they change and they get better. So part of last season was the beginnings of success for the coming year."
Calipari also did his share of learning during a trying year. He's not about to abandon his players-first philosophy, but Coach Cal has also come to understand shielding players too much can do harm.
"What you learn is you can't protect the players," Calipari said. "You can't protect them from competition. You bring in your group, and the guys that understand competition, that brings out the best. They strive and they get better."
He didn't say the exact phrase as he so often does, but it's clear Coach Cal "likes his team" once more. That begins with the personality he expects it to have.
He was asked on Wednesday about UK's signees saying at the McDonald's All-American Game - where six future Wildcats played - there would be fights at practices next season and Calipari said he likes that mentality, so long as those fights are forgotten outside the Joe Craft Center gym.
"It will drag us to where we're trying to go," Calipari said. "I'm going to tell you: Two years ago we did not have a bad practice. Not one. So that led us to building a swagger and a confidence level that we knew we could win every game we play, we just, let's be at our best and if we weren't and someone got us, fine, next game."
The first reason Calipari cited for his national title team's consistent practice habits was the presence of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Now, Coach Cal believes he has at least a couple players - Julius Randle, to name one - who will bring similar effort and a willingness to demand it out of their teammates.
"When you don't have that alpha male at all, you have to do things to try to lead yourself as a coach, and your team can never have the type of success you want," Calipari said. "You try to figure out who that could be or who could step up. A lot of times they are who they are in that regard - those guys who will step up and hold and push the group and not be afraid. That's what you're looking for when you have a good team."
Because he sees that potential, Calipari isn't exactly running away and hiding from the 40-0 buzz surrounding his team. He won't be talking about an undefeated record directly to his team, but the fact that the notion and is out there doesn't scare him even though UK's first loss won't destroy all hope of a successful season.
"Pressure brings out the best," Calipari said. " 'You're going to be fired if you don't get this done. You're not going to make it if you don't get this.' It wakes you up earlier in the morning. I don't mind a little pressure. I've had it my whole career. I've had a gun to my head for 20-something years, and you know what? I'm at my best when the gun is to my head versus where I can kick back and I'm not as good. And you know what? Players are the same."
English transfer Ben Stow and UK look to break through at NCAA Regionals in Fayetteville, Ark., this week. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Expectations were high for Ben Stow when crossed the Atlantic Ocean to join the Kentucky men's golf team. The former No. 2 ranked player according to the European Ranking System and a native of Salisbury, England, Stow was perceived as the missing link in Kentucky's lineup.
Those expectations, though lofty and perhaps unrealistic, are yet to be realized, and the transition from links-style golf in Europe to the American game has taken longer than expected.
While Stow hoped to hit the ground running after being able to train with his teammates in the fall season, he believed his game would translate in the U.S. with a little bit of tweaking. What he found was that he was perhaps a bit overzealous in his outlook.
"It has been a little difficult because you have to hit the ball so much higher over here and chipping on the different grass you have over here is very different," said Stow. "Certainly the first three or four tournaments I played I wasn't ready for the change."
Stow says that the physical conditions of the courses have been the hardest to get used to. The differences in grass have forced him to adjust his game and change his overall approach. In England, there are harder fairways that allow low, line-drive tee shots to roll. In the rough, "meadow" grass allows for easier chipping situations around the green.
Each of those factors has played a role in keeping Stow from being the player he's used to being.
The physical game of golf hasn't been the only hindrance to Stow's success, however.
After spending a great deal of his career with swing coach Gordon Brand, Jr., Stow separated himself from his greatest golf influence. Not only that, but Brand took time off and was completely off the grid for Stow as he experienced his struggles in America.
Stow had to take this challenge on by himself.
"I was one of the best players in Europe," said Stow. "But when I came over here, I kept finishing 20th and 15th and stuff, it kind of made me step back and think, 'What am I doing differently and what do I need to improve on?' I think that process took me longer than it would have if I was at home because of the fact that I didn't have instant correspondence with my coach.
"Overall, I think it's been a really good learning experience for me because every golfer goes through a period when they're struggling and it really shows your character on how you come out on the other side of it."
After experiencing so much success as an individual on the European circuit, Stow was in for a brand-new experience at Kentucky playing golf as a member of a team for the first time in his life.
Having always focused on himself, playing for others and not having the sole attention of the coaches has been as big of a challenge as any he's faced during his time in the States. Add to that the additional amount of pressure he felt to produce and be make the instant impact his coaches and teammates were hoping for, it's no wonder why things haven't gone as planned for the English native.
"I've never played team golf like they do in the States, so that was very different," said Stow. "The fact that the coach structures everything around the team rather than the individual and everything is set up for the team. Kind of at the end of the day, you look at how the team did and not how you did. It was different.
"I did feel a little pressure to help the team along because I played very well in qualifying when I first got here and I've got pretty good world rankings, so I expected to play well."
While there were outside expectations, Stow's confidence and internal expectations were just as high when, in reality, producing under such conditions wouldn't be easy.
"For the first couple of months I was here, I thought I was going to go out and shoot 65 every time I went out, when realistically no one does that in the world," said Stow. "I'm not going to say it's been easy because it's been tough. Who likes playing bad? But I'm glad I've been through it and I definitely feel like I'm out the other side of it now because even when I'm playing badly I'm making pretty good scores."
With an NCAA Regional ahead, Stow believes he's finally ready to be the contributor this team needs him to be. He's learned from his mistakes and still managed to earn several top-20 finishes along the way. He has altered his game and is starting to understand American-style golf more than at any point during his time in the country.
Though he and his teammates have not delivered on the hopes and expectations they set for themselves at the beginning on the spring, there is still one last opportunity to make their mark when they head to Fayetteville, Ark., for regional play beginning Thursday.
"We always thought that we'd get it going and start playing better, but we never really did," said Stow. "I think since postseason, some guys have shot really well. Some of the guys have put some really good rounds together. We've spent a lot of time together, which kind of brought the team to easing up a bit. I think the morale of the team is definitely up since the end of the regular season, but I think there's still room to work on that."
Some strong early results out of the gate tomorrow could go a long way in helping the Wildcats reach their goal of Nationals with a strong finish at Blessings Golf Club in Fayetteville. With morale trending upward and Stow finally feeling ready to be the player he knows he can be, the NCAA Regional serves as the last chance for Stow and Co. to realize their preseason expectations when they tee off Thursday at 9 a.m. ET.
"I would just say to them, 'Guys, we need to do the easy stuff well. We need to do the simple stuff well,' " said Stow. "We have got the ability to play great golf on this UK golf team. We've got the ability, we just need to go out there and believe in ourselves and do the simple things well. At the end of the week, add them up, and I'm sure we'll be at the top of the leader board."
Micheal Thomas hit his third home run of the season in UK's 5-3 win over No. 15 Indiana on Tuesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The way things have gone lately for the Kentucky baseball team, it was natural to wonder whether the Wildcats would let a little doubt creep in during the seventh inning.
After leading throughout in its home finale, UK surrendered two runs in the top of the inning as No. 15 Indiana took a 3-2 lead. But before the Cats could even ask themselves the question of whether they would respond, Micheal Thomas led off the home half by putting a charge into an 0-1 pitch.
"Micheal came up and ran that ball out of the yard and got everybody excited," UK head coach Gary Henderson said. "Now you're tied, you've got the right part of the lineup coming up."
Thomas drove Luke Harrison's pitch over the wall in left field, changing the dynamic all over again. Matt Reida singled next and Zach Storm bunted him to second. Leadoff man Kyle Barrett followed with a walk before Zac Zellers flew out, setting up A.J. Reed - who had already homered on the evening - for a two-out at-bat with a pair of runners on.
Reed delivered a single and the go-ahead run. An inning later, Reida added an insurance run with a single that scored Austin Cousino, giving the Cats a 5-3 lead that would be more than enough for their star closer. Trevor Gott struck out two of the three batters he faced en route to his 12th save and UK (29-22) picked up an important win with just three regular-season games remaining.
"This was definitely a huge game for us for our regional purposes," Reed said. "Them being 15th in the country, that win on paper looks really good for us. So I think this really increases our chances of getting into a regional and we gotta go take care of business in Missouri."
Reed opined that UK needs two wins in Columbia, Mo., to ensure its place in the NCAA Tournament while some experts say a sweep is needed, but the Cats aren't spending an inordinate amount of time thinking about all that.
"Our coaches try not to talk about it a lot because they want us to just go out there and relax," Reed said. "But we know what we need to do so we just do our best to go out here and take care of business."
A victory over a team leading the Big Ten is certainly a plus for a team looking to solidify its tourney resume, but the confidence built through earning it could be even more important.
Indiana came in ranked seventh nationally in earned-run average, but the Cats pounded out 10 hits and those two home runs. The performance comes on the heels of a weekend during which UK didn't pick up a win, but did pound out a pair of double-digit hit games.
"We started off really well at the beginning of the year and then when conference started we kind started dropping off a little bit and then we faced the two best pitching staffs in the country two weeks in a row with Arkansas and Vandy," Reed said. "We outhit the expectations of those two pitching staffs. So we're putting really good at-bats together, I think our hitters are starting to get confidence and it should be a really good weekend for us in Missouri."
The confidence is translating into a better approach at the plate.
"It's aggressive," Henderson said. "You guys see it. The body language is different. The presence is different."
That goes for the pitcher who started for UK on Tuesday as well.
For the second Tuesday in a row, Jerad Grundy excelled as UK's midweek starter. The win escaped him, but he allowed just one run over six innings and Henderson said the senior lefthander was in "complete control" outside of a Dustin DeMuth home run.
"It was huge for my confidence tonight to come out and have success again the second week in a row," Grundy said.
In all likelihood, Grundy will be an observer only this weekend in anticipation of next week's Southeastern Conference Tournament. But if his teammates can replicate the approach they all took on Tuesday, it will serve them well against Missouri.
"The only thing I told them is they need to go down there with the expectation that they need to take the wins," Henderson said. "You can't go down hoping. I don't know that we've done a lot of hoping this year. We certainly haven't played up to our expectations at times, but we need to go down with the right attitude."
Thanks to the generosity of its supporters, UK Athletics operates as one of the only self-sufficient departments in the nation. Each day, we work to prove ourselves worthy of that support.
This year, we are proud of our efforts. We are on pace for the best Directors' Cup finish in school history - we rank 20th after the conclusion of the winter sports season - and our student-athletes have excelled in the classroom and the community as well.
But at the annual CATSPY Awards in April, Mitch Barnhart challenged everyone involved with UK Athletics to do more. He challenged student-athletes, coaches and staff to become the nation's best overall athletic department.
It is with that in mind that the K Fund introduces the "Big Blue Initiative."
From May 1 through June 30, the program - which is entirely philanthropic - will offer the opportunity to impact the lives of our student-athletes and Invest In Blue once more. Each dollar will go into our annual fund, which ensures the success of the student-athletes, providing everything from scholarships to athletic equipment to books to meals. We will be sending more information about the Big Blue Initiative to current donors in the coming days and weeks.
To join, donors need only increase their annual giving by 15 percent. If you gave $100 in 2012-13, we are asking that you give an additional $15 before June 30. If you gave $1,000 in 2012-13, that means an additional $150.
Beyond helping UK push toward our athletics director's bold vision, participants will receive the added benefit of a tax deduction and five bonus K Fund points on top of the regular three points per $100 donation.
To become the country's top athletic department, it will take tireless effort and determination on the part of our coaches, but it won't be possible at all without your support. Please consider taking this important step with us.
If you have any questions about the Big Blue Initiative, feel free to contact the K Fund at 859-257-6300 or visit KFundonline.com.
With competition in NCAA-sanctioned winter sports in the books, UK Athletics is on pace for the best Directors' Cup finish in school history. UK ranks 20th in the latest standings, one of the key metrics used by Mitch Barnhart to evaluate the program's progress in competition.
With spring sports still in action on the field, a historic 2012-13 is already secure for UK Athletics in the classroom.
UK's competing scholarship student-athletes combined for a cumulative grade-point average of 3.14 this spring, the highest for a single semester during Barnhart's tenure. The record academic semester comes on the heels of a fall semester during which competing scholarship student-athletes combined for a 3.030 GPA.
"When I established the goal of a 3.0 overall GPA for our department, I knew I was setting the bar high," Barnhart said. "To reach it for an entire athletic year for the first time is an accomplishment our student-athletes should be very proud of. I commend and thank them for their hard work."
***See below for complete grade information for each sport***
Sixteen of UK's 20 teams had GPAs of 3.0 or better, led by women's tennis at 3.69. Four teams joined women's tennis in posting GPAs higher than 3.5: women's soccer (3.62), women's swimming and diving (3.60), women's cross country (3.59) and women's golf (3.53). Leading the way for the Wildcat men's teams was men's basketball at 3.39.
"I am continually impressed by the way our student-athletes, coaches and staff embrace academics as an important part of our mission," Barnhart said. "We are identified first by what we do in competition, but we are out to prove an athletic department can excel in all facets."
The collective achievement this spring has been matched by numerous individual accomplishments as well, as 47 scholarship student-athletes earned a 4.0 this spring semester. In addition, 39 percent of scholarship athletes had GPAs of 3.5 or better and 70 percent were at 3.0 or better. UK also led all Southeastern Conference schools with 57 student-athletes on the league's Winter Sports Academic Honor Roll.
Not included in that group because her sport is not played in the winter is Chelsea Oswald (women's cross country/track), but she was named the SEC's H. Boyd McWhorter Female Scholar-Athlete of the Year in April. Megan Moir (women's golf) also was named the Brad Davis SEC Female Community Service Leader of the Year, marking the first time since 1999 UK student-athletes have won both prestigious conference awards.
Note: All GPAs listed above are for competing scholarship student-athletes only. GPAs including non-scholarship athletes are listed in the chart below.
Head coach Rachel Lawson has guided the Wildcats to hosting their first NCAA Regional in school history. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The Kentucky softball team gathered together Sunday night at a local restaurant to watch the 2013 NCAA Division I Softball Selection Show. With players, coaches and a large portion of the UK athletics department in attendance, there was a feel that the night would be special for the softball program.
As each regional was being revealed, eyes throughout the restaurant were glued to the big-screen televisions. With anticipation rising, the Wildcats popped on the screen as the No. 12 overall seed and the host of the Lexington Regional.
The selection marks the first time UK has been awarded a host site in school history and is another example of how far the program has come under sixth-year head coach Rachel Lawson.
"It's great to see in such a short time how Kentucky has improved in softball," Lawson said. "To be able to be one of the 16 teams to host a regional is really an honor."
The moment was extra special for senior Alice O'Brien, who has another chance to play at home in front of the Big Blue Nation.
"I don't think I have ever been more excited," O'Brien said. "This is awesome. We have worked really hard for this and we are really excited to play at home and in front of our fans."
The regional will begin on Friday at John Cropp Stadium with No. 2 seeded Notre Dame (43-13) taking on No. 3 seeded Virginia Tech (35-19) at 5:00 p.m. ET on Friday, with the nightcap featuring the No. 1 seeded Wildcats (38-18) vs. No. 4 seeded Marshall (35-20) at 7:30 p.m. ET. ESPN3.com will televise all games played at the regional.
Marshall is a familiar foe for UK with the Wildcats having played the Thundering Herd back on April 9. The game was a tight one as the Cats used a walk-off hit from junior Ginny Carroll in comeback fashion in Lexington, 4-3. Notre Dame and Virginia Tech will be new opponents for UK to prepare for this season but offer strong competition for what is regarded as a tough overall regional.
"I think we have a good regional and I think the teams in it are excellent," Lawson said. "We played Marshall before and it was a good game and both Virginia Tech and Notre Dame have had good seasons. It's going to be a tough region and I think it's going to be a really exciting time in Lexington."
Kentucky played one of the most strenuous schedules in the entire country this year and a large part of that has to do with the conference in which the Wildcats compete. The SEC had an incredible 11 of its 13 teams selected into the NCAA Tournament last night, including seven as regional hosts.
The season has been a grind for the Cats and it will be a breath of fresh air to see a few new teams and face some different pitchers.
"Anytime you are out of SEC play its fun for a short amount of time because they know you so well and they have played you so many times," Lawson said. "With that said, I think all the teams I the region are outstanding so we are going to have to play as well against them as we would against any top-notch SEC team."
Last weekend UK hosted its first ever SEC Tournament. The event set an attendance record with more than 12,000 fans making their way to John Cropp Stadium over the weekend. The Wildcats are hoping for more of that same love from the Big Blue Nation this weekend. With the Cats losing to South Carolina in the first round of the conference tournament last Wednesday, they are glad they get to experience the true atmosphere of what they missed out on last week.
"I hope they come out like they did at the SEC Tournament," O'Brien said. "I'm sure they will and we are looking forward to playing in front of our fans. We didn't really get the chance to last weekend so we are really excited about it."
UK's No. 1 Anthony Rossi won in straight sets to help UK advance to their fourth consecutive Sweet 16. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
The first round of the NCAA Tournament served as a warm-up for the Wildcats. They handled Western Michigan and knocked off some rust after having three weeks off from competition.
The win gave the Cats the chance to advance to the second round but also see how they would respond to such a short layoff between matches. And then rain moved in to the Lexington area and forced all four teams to play indoors at the Hilary J. Boone Tennis Complex.
On Saturday, UK was matched with the region's No. 3 seed in Virginia Tech, a team that had been hot and just pulled off an upset over No. 2 seed Michigan. The Wildcats looked even sharper after getting a match under their belts and getting back outside.
"The first day was pretty tough," said senior Anthony Rossi. "We've practiced for the last two weeks outside, so it was tough to adjust. I think today everybody played much better, so that was a good day."
Rossi, Kentucky's No. 1 singles player and No. 5 nationally, looked the part Saturday after defeating Virginia Tech's Amerigo Contin in straight sets (6-0, 6-2). Getting back outside was key to his success.
"I was struggling a little bit yesterday inside," said Rossi. "It was tough to adjust. I have to give credit to (Western Michigan's Nadin Indre). He played a good match."
Rossi and Indre were still in the middle of their second set when junior Grant Roberts clinched the match Friday for the Wildcats. Saturday, Rossi finished up early and had a chance to watch Roberts perform the same task to send Kentucky to its fourth consecutive Sweet 16 appearance.
Next to Rossi on the main courts, junior Tom Jomby continued his dominance and made quick work of Tech's Andreas Bjerrehus (6-1, 6-2).
With Rossi and Jomby singles victories paired with their doubles point they earned, Kentucky led 3-1 and needed one more point for the victory. And once again, it was Roberts with a chance to clinch an NCAA Tournament victory for the second consecutive day.
"I'm just playing with a lot of confidence right now," said Roberts. "I've just been working on my game and being more aggressive. It's just been paying off."
In the most crucial time of the season, Kentucky's upperclassmen are taking the reins. With three freshmen in the singles lineup and key components of the doubles lineups, the postseason is the time for the veterans to step up and lead their team to victory. They're doing just that.
"It's important because we have to show the example every day," said Rossi. "We have to show them that even if we won the doubles today the match was not over."
But for all intents and purposes, it wasn't long after Kentucky won that doubles point that the match would end. Kentucky appears to be playing some of its best tennis of the year and peaking at the right moment.
"Our one-two punch is very tough," said UK head coach Cedric Kauffmann. "Grant is back into shape, Beck (Pennington) has been playing really, really well. He's turning into a leader. Kevin (Lai)'s been playing really good."
Though Kentucky came up short of its goal of winning a championship during the season, there is still one out there to be had. Going to its fourth straight Sweet 16 - the first under Kauffmann - gives the Cats validation that they are one of the best tennis programs in the country.
"We're one of the elites for sure, and it's only getting better," said Roberts. "We've had some great years, but I think Cedric's definitely going to keep building and getting this program better and better until we're top five and making Final Fours, finals and hopefully winning championships."
Kentucky now has an opportunity to move one step closer to that coveted championship: the NCAA Tournament title. That can only happen, however, if their next match in the round of 16 is the most important one on their schedule.
"We're going to put all of our eggs in one basket," said Kauffmann. "Our championship is against the team that we're going to play. I don't care about the other 14 teams in the draw. We'll just look at who we play and we'll try to knock them out."
No. 8 Kentucky will play the tournament's No. 9 seed Duke in the Sweet 16 in Urbana, Ill., on the campus of the University of Illinois on May 16 at 7 p.m. With Kentucky missing out on its championship so far this season, the Cats will have to get through the Blue Devils to win their coveted title. But after missing out on all three, the Wildcats are more than motivated to rectify that situation before all is said and done.
"It definitely fuels our fire," said Roberts. "This is our last one. We're really hungry. We really want to go out on top especially for our senior, for Rossi who has been such a big part of this program for four years. We definitely want to send him out on a good note."
Freshman Kevin Lai picked up a point in singles to help UK advance to the NCAA Tournament second round. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Rainy spring weather moved the first round of the NCAA Men's Tennis Tournament indoors on Friday afternoon, but that didn't keep the Wildcats from handling Western Michigan and advancing to face Virginia Tech in the second round Saturday afternoon.
Looking to start a deep tournament run, the Wildcats came out blazing, earning the doubles point on the strength of not their No. 1 doubles team comprised of junior Tom Jomby and freshman Kevin Lai, but due to the performances on courts two and three.
The tandems of Ryuji Hirooka and Beck Pennington combined with the duo of Anthony Rossi and Juan Pablo Murra gave Kentucky two quick decisive match victories, winning 8-3 and 8-1 respectively.
After having nearly two weeks off, it was important to grab that doubles point and strike quickly against a scrappy Western Michigan squad.
"I thought the intensity was really, really good," said UK head coach Cedric Kauffmann. "I think it's going to hopefully carry on to tomorrow, but I thought we played some of our best doubles today."
Though Jomby was unable to make a mark in the doubles point, he and Lai were well on their way to winning their doubles match point, he was the first off the court Friday with a dominating performance over his first-round opponent Ross VanderPloeg. Jomby made quick work of his foe, taking set one 6-0 before discarding VanderPloeg 6-4 in the second set.
Jomby's running mate in doubles, Lai, was busy making noise of his own on court No. 4, and quite literally.
From the other side of the Hilary J. Boone Tennis Center indoor facility, Lai could be heard yelling in celebration, point after point as he drew nearer and nearer to a victory for his team with the Cats leading 2-0. Lai got off to a great start in doubles with Jomby, playing a great match which was ultimately abandoned due to UK's clinch, and he carried his play over to singles.
He took the first set with relative ease, taking it 6-2. He was in for a battle in the second set, however, from his opponent Ruben Greiner.
That's when the intensity and his inner Jomby -known for his on-court energy and enthusiasm - began to manifest themselves.
"I think he's taking it from Tom. I think he's looking at Rossi. He's looking at the upperclassmen," said Kauffmann. "I think it's a little bit from him too. That's just the way he is."
Lai had to battle back in set two, trailing 3-1, before knotting things up at 3-3. Then Lai had a chance to put the match away with 6-5 lead, but the back and forth continued as Greiner forced a tiebreaker at 6-6.
It was all Lai from there, however, as he jumped out to a 3-0 lead that turned into a 7-3 victory to take the match in straight sets
It was a sign that the freshman has continued his season-long maturing process.
"Today I tried to work on every single point during the match," said Lai. "I'm all the way back (on court four) so I don't have to worry about what the crowd's doing and like with these three courts what they're doing because I couldn't see the score, so I just focused on my court and tried to finish for the team."
With Lai's point, the Cats had pulled ahead to a commanding 3-0 lead with three matches still in play. Rossi was battling on court No. 1 against WMU's No. 1 Nadin Indre. Indre gave Rossi all he could handle, though Rossi took the first set.
Meanwhile, after completion of Jomby's victory, the final match of the day got underway as junior Grant Roberts took the court. While the other matches grinded out point after point, Roberts made quick work of his opponent.
After getting a later start due to the weather and moving the tournament inside with fewer courts, Roberts still managed to finish before two of the other matches, disposing of Andrew Cahn in a hasty fashion to clinch the first round victory for his team and fulfilling a role that he relishes in.
"It felt pretty good," said Roberts. "I'm used to playing on the last two, so being in the pressure situation I guess you'd say, so I'm pretty used to that. It felt pretty good to get out there and get a match and take care of business."
Roberts took both sets by the score of 6-1 and propelled the No. 1 Wildcats into a second-round matchup with No. 3 seed Virginia Tech, which defeated No. 2 Michigan. After playing several matches outside over the course of the last couple months, getting back inside today was a good change of pace for the Wildcats.
"This is what's maybe is good if it does rain," said Kauffmann. "If we play inside (Saturday) I think it helps us, and if we play out, we've been playing some really good tennis outside."
No matter the venue, Kentucky will have to continue to bring the intensity Saturday if the Cats want to advance to the Sweet 16 and knock off a surging Virginia Tech bunch.
"I think over the last month they've been playing pretty well," Kauffmann said. "They just knocked off Michigan who's been kind of hot through the year, so I think we're going to have a pretty tough match. We're at home so we hope the Big Blue Nation will help us out."
Cedric Kauffmann leads UK into the NCAA Tournament for the first time as a head coach starting on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Since the moment he took over 10 months ago, Cedric Kauffmann has been planning for this moment. All along, the first-year Kentucky head coach has been trying to position his team to play its best tennis in the NCAA Tournament.
That doesn't mean exactly what it sounds like though.
The Wildcats aren't going to paint the line with every shot. Not everything will go their way now that every match could be the last one of the season. What Kauffmann has been working toward is his team understanding that and knowing how to best deal with it.
"I never have six guys playing their best tennis in one match, but what I mean by 'best tennis' is knowing what to do when you're not playing your best," Kauffmann said.
On Friday, No. 8 UK (20-11) will open the NCAA Tournament at home - the fifth straight time the Wildcats have hosted to open NCAA play - against Western Michigan (19-9). When the first ball is served in doubles play at around 3 p.m. ET, Kauffmann knows it's unlikely all of his players will be at their peak; the goal is to grind through whatever happens.
"Am I going to have two, three guys that play very good tennis? Yeah, we're going to have to." Kauffmann said. "But I know I'm going to have one or two or three guys that are not going to play their best tennis and they're going to have to get through it."
During the fall, Anthony Rossi was having trouble with that. He looked around and saw that he was the only senior on the roster, that former stars Eric Quigley and Alex Musialek were no longer there to fill the top two spots in the lineup. Sensing that void, Rossi tried to step up, bearing the responsibility for an inexperienced group.
It wasn't working.
An inconsistent fall caused Rossi to drop from a No. 12 all the way to No. 94 in national singles rankings. By thinking first about his team, Rossi neglected himself and his own game. With the help of his coach, Rossi has found the right balance during the spring.
"I'm doing much better than the beginning of the season," Rossi said. "During the fall I was maybe focusing too much on the team and not on myself and that's why I dropped from 12 to 94. Now I'm doing first a better job on myself and then taking care of the team."
In turn, Rossi has excelled, running up a 22-5 spring record and ascending to No. 5 in the rankings. No. 2 singles player Tom Jomby has followed suit and joined Rossi as a First-Team All-Southeastern Conference honoree.
"I think we have one of the strongest one-two punches in the country when they're ready to play," Kauffmann said.
Entering the postseason, Rossi and Jomby will look to raise their game once more. With a freshmen-laden back of the rotation behind them, UK's two veterans will need to set the tone, particularly with unfamiliar opponents coming to Lexington for the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament this week. After Western Michigan, UK faces a possible Saturday matchup with either No. 23 Michigan (16-9) or No. 42 Virginia Tech (15-9), neither of which the Cats have played in the recent past.
With that in mind, the Cats plan to think about themselves more than their opponents.
"Focusing on your game because we don't know much about them, they don't know much about us," Rossi said. "So just focus on your game one point at a time and that's about it."
Though Western Michigan, Michigan and Virginia Tech are all unknown, none of them figure to be able to throw anything at the Cats that they haven't already seen. UK has played an incredible 17 matches in 2013 against teams currently ranked in the Intercollegiate Tennis Association's top 20.
"That's something that Coach (Dennis) Emery kind of taught me a little bit," Kauffmann said. "If you really want to be good, you gotta play a strong schedule that gets you ready for the end of the year."
It's now time for the Wildcats to find out exactly how well prepared they are.
"There is a little bit of pressure, but it's a really good pressure," Jomby said.