May 11, 2017
“Keep your eyes on the prize.”
It’s a common theme come NCAA Tournament time.
It’s certainly one No. 19 Georgia Tech has heard in the days leading up to the start of NCAA Tournament play, which begins Friday at 2 p.m. at the Alfred A. Ring Tennis Complex on the campus of the University of Florida, when they meet No. 39 Minnesota.
Not looking ahead sounds easier in theory than in practice and that’s no disrespect toward the Golden Gophers. But the Jackets shouldn’t have that problem.
“We would never overlook Minnesota,” said head coach Kenny Thorne, who is leading the Jackets into his 13th NCAA Tournament. “They’ve had a great year. They knocked off (No. 25) Illinois, who’s perennially one of the best in their conference. So they’ve had some big wins. It’s going to be tough. Every team is so talented that we have to be very careful and make sure we take of business in the first round. Our goal is to make the Sweet 16, but you can’t do that until you win your first round.”
It’s just that a matchup with the No. 15 Gators (assuming Florida knocks off Florida Gulf Coast) is so alluring, on several fronts.
There’s the proximity of the two states and former SEC rivals, not to mention the growing ACC-SEC hostility.
There’s the quite civil battle of wits between former Georgia Tech teammates and good friends, now opposing head coaches, Thorne and Florida’s Bryan Shelton.
Then there’s the highly entertaining battle at the one spot, with Tech’s Christopher Eubanks getting a rematch against Florida’s Alfredo Perez, who beat him in the fall.
But all that would be in the second round, with the key word being “second.”
It’s safe to say Thorne has reinforced to the Jackets that first they must beat Minnesota (16-9, 5-6 Big Ten) in this sixth meeting between the schools (Georgia Tech holds a 3-2 edge, with the last meeting coming in 2004).
“We’re not going to go in there looking at anything other than doing what we need to do and that’s what we’ve focused on all season, showing up ready to play every single match,” Thorne added. “I feel like this year we’ve really showed up ready to play and we’ve been consistent, almost as consistent as we could be, the whole season. So we’ll be ready on Friday.”
Eubanks, named ACC Player of the Year for the second-straight season, is certainly ready.
“I’m extremely excited. I think we’ve worked hard all year and it’s good to kind of see the fruits of our labor,” Eubanks said. “Being able to be a part of the NCAA Tournament is a great honor and a great privilege and I’m glad we’ve been able to put things together and hopefully put ourselves in a position to win the first round and go on and win the second round and make the Sweet 16 in Athens.”
The nation’s seventh-ranked player, Eubanks finished 27-5, 11-1 in the ACC, and is 2-1 career in singles in NCAA Tournament action and is 3-0 in doubles. He recognizes this time of year everything is magnified, especially playing at No. 1 in both singles and doubles, where he plays with senior Carlos Benito, who were 4-5, 4-3 in ACC play — they come into NCAAs looking to snap a three-match winless streak (0-2, 1 unfinished).
“Every match really means a lot now so I really think that it is a challenge or a privilege, I guess I would say, to be able to play in the one spot and have your team kind of depending on you,” Eubanks said. “It’s something I embrace. I enjoy putting a point up there for my guys and just getting out there and battling and cheering them on. It’s a great honor. I don’t take it lightly and hopefully I can continue to do some of the great things that I’ve been doing so far.”
Eubanks will look to improve his 15-4 record against nationally ranked players on Friday, when he meets either No. 70 Matic Spec (21-16, 6-6 Big 10, 1-8 vs. national opponents) or his doubles partner Felix Corwin (23-13, 7-6, 2-4), who also has played at No. 1 for Minnesota.
“I don’t know Matic. I know Felix Corwin a little bit,” he said. “I don’t put too much emphasis on who the guys are. I’m just going out there and am going to give it my all for my guys and live with whatever result that is.”
Advancing will rely as much on those behind Eubanks. That starts with sophomore Andrew Li, who was named Third-Team All-ACC.
“I think Andrew has done a spectacular job,” said Eubanks. “I can’t even put into words how much this guy has been able to do for our team. Whether it’s his professionalism, his willingness to work. I think Drew has the best work ethic on the team. To go from not being in the lineup last year to now playing 2 is remarkable.”
Eubanks feels Li’s play and his drive have inspired the team.
“If our team was filled with a lot of Andrew Li’s I think we definitely could be one of the best teams in the country,” he said. “Andrew’s attitude is contagious. He’s had a great effect on Daniel Yun and Carlos Divar, who came in in January and he’s done a great job for us in the middle of the lineup. So I’m very confident with the guys that we have behind us and hopefully we can continue to put these things together and see what happens.”
Thorne points to improved depth as a difference-maker.
“Something we’ve done better this year is we’ve had depth,” he said. “The middle of our lineup has come through a lot better and Andrew Li stepping in and doing a great job at No. 2. He recently got voted All-ACC. That shows we’ve improved throughout the lineup and I think, anchored by Chris at the top and then having all the other guys kind of follow suit has been the reason that we’ve been more consistent.”
They’re also battle-tested, as the Jackets are competing in their third straight NCAAs, the second-longest run in the Thorne era.
“I think you start establishing yourself as a tournament team,” Thorne said. “It’s like anything, after you’ve been there you’re never satisfied with just being there. I’ve learned to not take anything for granted; I’ve learned to enjoy every win. It is a big accomplishment for these guys to make the Tournament but enjoying that and being satisfied are two different things. We can enjoy it but we’re absolutely excited about trying to make a run. Really, honestly, Minnesota is our focus.”
And very focused they are — not to mention amped up.
“You like to say the whole cliche that, ‘It’s just another match’ but the NCAA Tournament is a little bit different. It’s win or go home,” said Eubanks. “I think the intensity magnifies a little bit on how much every single point, every single shot means, because it’s not just for you. It’s for the entire team. So I think that you have a heightened sense of intensity going into the NCAAs.
“It’s a very cool situation to be in,” he added. “I think we definitely would rather be the host school but in this situation, going down to Florida, being able to hopefully upend their season would mean the world to us. But we’re going to take it one match at a time, go after Minnesota and then see where it goes from there.”