John Clay: UK courting the men's cup for best overall athletic program

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMay 15, 2012 

  • Friday

    NCAA Sweet Sixteen: Kentucky vs. Stanford

    When: 4 p.m.

    Where: Athens, Ga.

    Records: UK 28-5; Stanford 19-8

  • Capital One Men's Cup standings

    Schools earn points for top-10 finishes in NCAA championships and final official coaches' polls:

    1. North Carolina 75

    2. Kentucky 66

    3. Alabama 60

    3. North Dakota State 60

    5. Ohio State 52.5

    5. Stanford 52.5

    7. UCLA 48

    8. Oklahoma State 47

    9. Louisiana State 42

    10. California 38

    10. Louisville 38

    Others

    13. Kansas 36

    17. Arkansas 30

    19. Florida 29

    42. Indiana 13

    48. South Carolina 9

    59. Auburn 5

    69. Texas A&M 3

    75. West Virginia 2.5

    85. Duke 1

Dennis Emery has been around so long, 30 years now, he's forgotten more about college tennis than most of us will ever know.

In fact, he forgot one very important element.

"I'd been around long enough, I had forgotten how important it was to have the best players," Kentucky's men's tennis coach said Tuesday.

We media laughed, but Emery wasn't joking.

"It's been very good to kind of see that this year," he said. "We actually do have the best players athletically."

And then Emery and his Wildcats got on a bus to the NCAA Men's Tennis Championships in Athens, Ga., where the sixth-ranked Cats will face No. 11 Stanford in a Sweet 16 match Friday.

When it comes to "best players," there has been a lot of that this year with UK men's sports. At present, Kentucky ranks second behind North Carolina in the Capital One Men's Cup standings for the best overall athletic program.

If Emery's squad could find its way into the Final Four this weekend, that may clinch the Cup title for the Cats.

"Thanks for telling me that," said Emery, smiling.

Actually, he wants to do his part.

"I've been around here 30 years and I think it's the best year in UK athletics I've ever seen," he said. "It would mean something special if we could help with some of those director's cup-type point standings because I feel like our administration has really bent over backward this year to work with us."

Men's tennis has held up its end of the bargain.

UK went undefeated in SEC regular-season play to win its first conference title since 1992. It reached the finals of the SEC Tournament before losing to Georgia, then rebounded to sweep Radford (4-0) and Indiana (4-0) to become just the second team in school history to reach the Sweet 16 three straight years, matching the 1987-89 teams.

Only this team is better, claims Emery.

"This is our best team in terms of athletic ability," said the coach. "I think even the guys who were on some of those teams — those '88 teams, '89 teams, '92 teams — they would tell you this team is much better athletically."

It did lose to Stanford earlier in the year, however. After losing to Ohio State in the second round of the National Indoor Championships in Charlottesville, Va., in February, UK turned around and lost to Stanford 4-1.

"They are definitely a good team, but I think we can play better," said UK's No. 1 singles star, Eric Quigley, ranked third nationally by the Intercollegiate Tennis Association. "I think we were a little upset about the Ohio State loss the day before. We're definitely happy to get some revenge, but it's not going to be easy."

"It was a match I felt like we definitely should have won the first time around," Emery said. "I didn't sort of have the answers to get the guys to come back after a really tough loss the day before."

Kentucky advanced past the Sweet 16 to the national quarterfinals last year for just the fourth time in school history before losing to second-ranked Southern Cal. They believe they are capable of going further this time.

That's another thing Emery has learned in those years: When you have the opportunity, you need to take it.

"One thing I've learned over 30 years is that when you have a good team, you better win," he said. "It's important when you're good to seal the deal and put the nail in that coffin. And that's what we have to do this week coming up.

"We graduate our No. 1 and No. 2 (players) and even though we feel like we're going to be good next year, this is our time."


UK men's tennis coach previews Sweet 16 match

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com

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