When Alex Clinkenbeard is not hitting tennis balls for the University of Denver, he might be trying to re-animate the hearts of pigs slaughtered for their meat. It's part of testing how well artificial heart valves regulate the flow of blood.
Denver pre-med students like Clinkenbeard get the hearts from a nearby slaughterhouse, implant the valves, get the hearts beating again and then experiment.
"Very awesome experience," said Clinkenbeard, whose grade-point average is in excess of 3.5.
Coincidentally, Clinkenbeard is considered the heart of the Denver team that will compete against Kentucky on Friday in an NCAA Tournament first-round match.
"An absolute warrior," Denver assistant coach Jeremy Feldman said of Clinkenbeard. "He's probably the most competitive player on the team. He fights, and he fights hard. He'll do whatever it takes to win. It might not be pretty, but ..."
Feldman, a New York native, likened Clinkenbeard to Yankees captain Derek Jeter. A one-time three-star prospect from Loveland, Colo., Clinkenbeard lacks size (5-foot-10, 160 pounds) but all but willed himself into a productive college player who inspires his teammates.
"I just try to grind out every point I can, and try to be a rock out there," Clinkenbeard said.
Clinkenbeard came to tennis relatively late. At the end of his seventh-grade year, he happened upon a neighborhood court where lessons were offered.
Of finding his sport, Clinkenbeard said, "Kind of by chance. Right place and right time."
Clinkenbeard is one of three holdovers from a Denver team that upset Florida at Florida in the NCAA Tournament last year. The circumstances are strikingly similar: Denver was and is the fourth seed playing at the pod's No. 1 seed, which happens to be a Southeastern Conference team ranked No. 15 overall in the NCAA Tournament.
"It does feel eerily similar," said Clinkenbeard, who won one of the matches at Florida last year.
Kentucky (21-9) has not played a match since losing to Texas A&M on April 19.
During the season, UK defeated six ranked teams: No. 1 Ohio State, No. 8 Texas A&M, No. 11 Duke, No. 17 Mississippi State, No. 20 Tennessee and No. 21 Vanderbilt.
UK has advanced out of the Lexington Regional each of the past four seasons to the NCAA Sweet 16. That's the longest such streak in program history.
Denver (12-10) finished the season by winning the Summit League Tournament. Feldman noted how momentum can be a factor in tennis.
"The best word for it is confidence," he said. "When a team gets a good win, they feed off it. There's more energy, more motivation and it leads to better performance."
Clemson, the No. 2 seed in the Lexington pod, has a 20-8 record. The Tigers advanced to the 2014 ACC Tournament quarterfinals, where they lost to Notre Dame 4-2.
Purdue, the No. 3 seed, has a 15-7 record. The Boilermakers beat six teams ranked in the top 75.
Matches are best-of-seven. Winning two of three doubles matches counts for one point. The other six points are awarded on six singles (best of three sets).
In case of rain, the matches will be moved to UK's indoor courts.
"I'll tell the players to make sure you don't want to play in or out," UK Coach Cedric Kauffmann said. "Because if it doesn't work out, I don't think mentally you'll be ready. I think you should be ready for both."