Illinois to host NCAA Regionals, looks to avenge 2019 second-round loss

By Enji Erdenekhuyag, Staff Writer

On Monday, the NCAA selection show unveiled the 64 teams that will play in the national tournament. 

The 16-seeded Illinois men’s tennis team will host DePaul, Notre Dame and Western Michigan for the first and second rounds at Khan Outdoor Tennis Complex in Urbana this weekend. The winner of the regional pod will move on to Orlando, where competition for the national title will continue with 15 other teams.   

Entering the tournament, Illinois (21-2) is on a 17-match winning streak. Head coach Brad Dancer’s team snagged the Big Ten Tournament championship over Ohio State this past Sunday, avenging their loss to the Buckeyes earlier in the season and quelling a six-year title drought. 

“It’s funny, Brad talks about a lot of his coaching friends,” Zeke Clark said. “Their seasons (are) now over, and so he’s like, ‘Oh, they’re all out fishing or camping or vacationing; I feel like our season’s just getting started.’

“We know we have a long way to go in (the NCAA tournament). We believe that we can go all the way, but again, it’s gonna be continuing to celebrate this, but we have a lot more business in front of us, so back to work, and we’ll keep that as the main focus moving forward.”

For the first round, Illinois drew DePaul. The Blue Demons (15-6) are making their first NCAA appearance in program history after securing the Big East tournament title April 26. Whichever team advances will play the winner of Western Michigan and Notre Dame. 

Western Michigan (22-1) claimed the Mid-American regular season championship this past weekend, while Notre Dame (14-10) was knocked out of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament in the opener April 22. The Irish were the ones who served the Broncos their only loss of the season. 

To make its selections, the NCAA factors in the Intercollegiate Tennis Association’s regular-season team rankings. But throughout the season, the ITA’s rankings have been called into question, as individuals and teams found themselves slipping down the standings despite pulling in wins. 

The ITA released a statement April 6, explaining its computerized algorithm is based on several variables, such as total wins and losses compared to the team’s strength of schedule.

Given the unusual nature of the season, not every conference schedule looked the same. While some arranged matches to resemble those of previous years, others selected to play teams solely within its conference. 

Though the Big Ten featured a conference-only schedule, Illinois did play non-conference teams at the ITA National Team Indoor Championships, where it defeated current No. 5 seed Virginia and current No. 12 seed USC but fell to the No. 2 seed Baylor. 

Regardless of the confusion and uncertainty with scheduling and seeding, a silver lining persists: A whole season of tennis has been played and will continue to be played at the national level.

Illinois’ matchup against DePaul begins at 4 p.m. Friday. The winner will play Notre Dame or Western Michigan at 3 p.m. Saturday. 

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