This is where Illinois can make a name for itself.
It all starts with a crucial rematch against a familiar foe Friday with No. 9 TCU.
In last year’s Sweet Sixteen matchup, Illinois put up a fight, but in the end succumbed to a better team in singles competition. This year, however, the roles are reversed a bit.
Illinois comes in with the better record and the higher national and tournament seed. The experience of last year seemingly paid off for the Illini, as players such as Zeke Clark made huge strides from freshman to sophomore seasons and Aleks Vukic continued his brilliance and turned Illinois into a national contender.
They're going to need contributions from everyone this weekend, though, as TCU won't go down without a fight. It starts with junior Alex Rybakov and senior Guillermo Nunez. This doubles pairing might be the best Illinois has faced all year. Ranked number four overall as a doubles set, these two have accrued a 13-2 record, with seven wins over ranked opponents, and are currently riding a 12-match win streak.
Rybakov is no slouch in singles, either. He ranks No. 18 in the nation with an 18-5 record this season.
Personally, I see the depth of Illinois winning out here, as this Illini team boasts a roster that's four or five players deep, and can matchup with any of the alternates TCU has. Caleb Chakravarthi and Aleks Kovacevic will be tremendously important to the success of Illinois in this tournament down the stretch.
Of course, the biggest spotlight will be on sophomore Zeke Clark, as he continues his rise to prominence, riding his 13-match win streak and playing like a seasoned veteran against some stiff competition.
The biggest key to upending TCU will be to get off to a fast start and let the depth of Illinois wear down the Horned Frogs in singles competition.
Rybakov and Nunez will be formidable in doubles, but the Illini should be able to capitalize on a weaker bottom half for TCU.
I predict Illinois will move on to the Elite Eight in what will be a difficult, but ultimately winnable match Friday. This team has shown all year that it can match up with anyone not named Ohio State, and I foresee the Illini taking it to the Horned Frogs in singles and advancing.
The Fighting Illini continue their quest for the National Championship tomorrow at 4 p.m. in Winston-Salem.