With the first dual NCAA Tennis Championships underway, it is now time for the team preview for the men's tournament.
Perennial powerhouse and no-longer perennial host Georgia is undefeated and seeded #1. Absent any Pac-10 teams at the top, it is up to Pepperdine to represent the left coast as the #2 seed. Texas (#3) and the Duke Blue Devils (#4) from the ACC round out the top four.
Conventional wisdom has Georgia as a giant favorite. The Bulldogs are not only undefeated but have yet to lose a doubles point all season long. They also seem to be on a roll, winning their last five matches 4-0. They are led by a real giant, 6'7" and #2-ranked John Isner.
Pepperdine would probably garner any remaining votes with an outstanding (and inflated) 32-2 record. (Editor's Note: We're still investigating how the Waves played so many matches this season? Something smells fishy…) The Waves' lone two losses this season were to the other two top-three teams: 4-0 to Georgia in the National Team Indoor finals and 5-2 to Texas in Austin. The Longhorns are led by coach Mike Center, a NorCal stockbroker in a former life. Texas is looking at a rematch with Pepperdine in the semis, assuming they can survive a probable quarterfinal match-up with #6 Ohio State. Finally, Duke, the Atlantic Coast Conference champions, were placed in the always-tough 4/5 seed quarter, which also includes none other than our Stanford Cardinal (the #13 seed).
The first big match-up is the fast closing University of Washington Huskies (who upset #12 Virginia Commonwealth University in the regional) versus the bunch from Waco, The Baylor Bears. Believe it or not, there is not one American in either starting line-up, so it comes down to "can my Eastern Europeans beat your Eastern Europeans?" I pick the more experienced Eastern Europeans (two seniors/three juniors) from Washington in a huge upset.
Stanford will try to do its version of a "bad taste" party and kick the Blue Devils out of the dance in a 3 pm match on Saturday at Taube Stadium (weather permitting). Coach John Whitlinger has his boys peaking, and they should be fresh and rested having only played 20 dual matches all year (Pepperdine played 34 matches!). If it worked for Barbaro in the Kentucky Derby, it might work for the surging Cardinal.
The Illinois/UCLA contest features two recent winners (the Illini in 2003 and UCLA last year), and you don't want to miss this match-up. Somehow, former winners seem to prance around a little more than non-winners at the championships. Call it pride, call it coaching attitude, but there will be some chemistry happening Saturday at noon at the Taube South.
A good sleeper would be Big 10 champ Ohio State, who has 58,365 students to select from and has dropped one early season match (5-2 to Notre Dame). The Buckeyes should be fine against UNC and could then give the #3 Longhorns (student body is only 50,403) all they can handle in a Sunday morning thriller at Taube.
The Cardinal men have senior KC Corkery at #1 as well as three "recruits" - super frosh Matt Bruch, fellow freshman Blake Muller and redshirt junior James Pade, who is rejoining the squad after skipping 2005. After a stunning performance in Ojai at the Pac-10 Championships, the men are itching to return to their former glory and go deep in this year's NCAA's. They will need lots of hometown support to beat #4 Duke, but the Devils do have six losses on the season. Duke has a pattern of losing the first encounter and then getting the "revenge thing" going in the return match. They pulled off this feat against both Florida State and Virginia. Unfortunately for the Blue Devils, this tournament format is not two-out-of-three. I'm betting with my heart on this one, as one of the all-time good guys, John Whitlinger, wins his first of many Sweet Sixteen contests.
The women's tournament is off to a great start with super first day/night crowds and beautiful Northern California weather. The #6 "Ramblin Wreck" from Georgia Tech were the highest seed to be eliminated, falling to #11 Northwestern. Another highlight was the predicted epic marathon which featured Florida finally prevailing over the Bruins, 4-3. Delayed by 90 minutes on Thursday night, the defending champion Stanford women won a spirited encounter with TCU.
Note: Mark Hurd, CEO at Hewlett-Packard and featured speaker at the men's banquet Thursday night, will not be happy with my comments on the Baylor/Washington match. Mark was a Baylor tennis standout before moving into the corporate world. However, the Baylor men and Mark have a lot to live up to after Sally Ride (former Stanford #1 tennis player and, oh yeah, FIRST WOMAN IN OUTER SPACE) absolutely captivated the women players at their banquet Wednesday evening. She said she was so happy to talk about her tennis and not weightlessness in space. I've never seen the roughly 160 young players so entranced by a keynote speaker. If only we coaches could inspire such bewitchment at team meetings…
(More next week on the individual men's and women's championship)
Frank Brennan was the Stanford Women's Tennis Coach for 21 seasons (1980-2000), winning an amazing 10 NCAA crowns during that span. He amassed a remarkable 510-50 (.911) overall dual match record, and his players won nine NCAA singles and three NCAA doubles titles. Brennan was Intercollegiate Tennis Association's "Coach of the Decade" for both the 1980's and the 1990's. Brennan's teams won six consecutive NCAA championships from 1986-91, reached the Final Four 18 times and registered a then-record 76-dual match winning streak. He was named to the Stanford Athletics Hall of Fame in 2001 and was inducted into the Intercollegiate Hall of Fame in 2006.
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