Forget SEC speed. The Ohio State men's tennis team will spend the next week worrying about how to contend with SEC heat.
After easily dispatching Bryant and Wake Forest in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, the third-ranked Buckeyes will head to Athens, Ga., for the final four rounds. They resume their quest for a second straight Final Four appearance when they take on No. 14 Florida on Friday at 7 p.m.
The Buckeyes showed they had no problem taking down opponents in a climate-controlled environment by winning the program's first ITA National Team Indoor Championship in Houston on Feb. 17. But the NCAA title won't be decided indoors, and Ohio State will have to play in heat and humidity after a snow-filled winter confined them to indoor practice for most of the season.
At a Monday morning practice, Ohio State head coach Ty Tucker let his players know what they were up against. "It's going to be 85, 90 degrees!" he yelled as the players sprinted across the courts. "It's going to be 100 in my sweats!" The latter remark, referencing his famous game day attire, drew laughs from Ohio State tight end Jeff Heuerman, who showed up in time to watch his roommate Peter Kobelt go through conditioning exercises.
But there's a method to the madness of Tucker, who has now directed the Buckeyes to nine consecutive appearances in the round of 16. Knowing that his team hasn't been able to practice in the heat until recently, Tucker is doing his best to make up for lost time with two-a-days before the team left for Athens.
"It's been the worst winter I can remember, so we definitely have some catching up to do with the outdoor tennis," Tucker said. "Usually we catch up with the outdoor tennis pretty quickly. It's just the extreme heat that's hard to prepare for."
Luckily for the Buckeyes, their suffering at practice appears to have come with a karmic award. The temperatures aren't forecasted to reach the 80s in Athens until the NCAA final. In the three days after the tournament has concluded, the heat could reached up into the mid-90s.
Regardless of whether or not the heat shows up, Ohio State knows it has done everything it can to prepare to play in the heat.
"We never have a problem with them wanting to prepare and trying to be the best tennis players they can be and the best students, actually," Tucker said. "I know that there's some competitive guys on my team and some guys that want to win for Ohio State. They know that it's part of the drill to have to put up with me and put up with some of the running drills in the heat."
Even if the temperatures help out Ohio State, there are still plenty of other factors working against them when it comes to playing outdoors. Kobelt, a senior from New Albany who is the ninth-ranked singles competitor in the country, acknowledged those differences but also said that the impact would be minimal if Ohio State plays well.
"At the end of the day, it's still tennis, but you have the sun to worry about, you have the wind to worry about, you have the conditions to worry about," he said. "It's different. The ball's not always where you think it's going to be. You have to take care of the ball a little more and you can't hit it where you want to all the time. At the end of the day, you still serve to the deuce box on the deuce side and still try to hit the ball between the lines. It's nothing totally different, but there's definitely a difference."
Against Florida, the Buckeyes will be facing a team they defeated 4-1 in the opening round of the ITA National Team Indoor Championship. The confidence from the title they went on to win gave them the confidence to maintain a No. 1 ranking for much of the season, but it also meant teams would no longer overlook a team many thought would be in a rebuilding year.
"It's actually going to be a lot harder the second time around because Florida is more of an outdoor team because they're down south," Ohio State junior Kevin Metka said. "They're going to be a lot stronger outdoors than indoors, and I think we're a little better indoors than outdoors. It'll be a good matchup and we're looking forward to it."