STARKVILLE — Artem Ilyushin is feeling “those nerves” in anticipation of his final weekend at the A.J. Pitts Center.
The Mississippi State University men’s tennis team’s top player hopes to perform better in his finale than he did two weeks ago at the Southeastern Conference Tournament in Starkville.
“Everybody felt it at SECs, and it was not a bad feeling because now you know you’re playing in matches that really matter,” Ilyushin said. “There’s some more pressure in what we’re doing, but you have to give credit to my (teammates) and our fans for creating that type of atmosphere when we play.”
Ilyushin was diagnosed with strep throat and was unable to practice the week leading up to the SEC tournament. He received medically clearance to play in the tournament, but he was at less than 100 percent physically and he lost two three-set matches.
“I’ve had a little time to recover and study for my finals, so I’m as healthy now as I have been all season,” Ilyushin said. “It’s all been about practicing hard. Yeah, unfortunately, I lost two matches last time, but some of that was out of my control.”
Ilyushin will try to get back on track at 2 p.m. Friday when No. 9 MSU plays host to Alcorn State in the first round of the NCAA tournament. No. 28 Baylor University will take on No. 32 University of Memphis at 11 a.m. Friday in the other first-round match. The winners will meet Saturday to see which team advances to the Sweet 16 on May 17 in Athens, Ga. The No. 9 seed is MSU’s highest since it was a No. 4 seed in 1998.
“It’s a dream right now to think — wow, if we play as well as we’re capable of then yeah, we’ve got a shot to win any match as a team,” Ilyushin said. “It gives you chills just thinking about it.”
Ninth-seeded MSU (19-6) is playing host to the first and second rounds of the NCAA tournament for the first time since the bracket expanded to regional play in 1999. The second chance to play in the postseason at the A.J. Pitts Centre has given the Bulldogs new life.
“We took five days off, which was mostly recovery work, as we’ve had guys basically living in the training room to get healthy,” MSU coach Per Nilsson said. “Now that we’ve started to get gassed up again, we feel like when healthy we’re able to beat anybody in the country.”
Seniors Ilyushin, Louis Cant, and George Coupland also have earned spots in the singles and doubles field of the NCAA Individual Championships, which will be in Athens, Ga., following the team tournament.
For the second-straight year, Coupland and Ilyushin earned a spot in the 64-player singles field. In the 32-team NCAA doubles field, the 25th-ranked tandem of Coupland and Ilyushin earned their second bid after going 15-5 (7-4 SEC) this season. Competing at No. 1 and 2, the team had three victories against opponents ranked in the top 20, including one in the top 10.
“George and I have always made for a good doubles team, but we had a setback earlier and we weren’t playing well together,” Ilyushin said. “George and I have realized that if we’re playing well then that’s going to snowball effect for our second and third doubles teams. That’s how we’re going to win the doubles point.”
Ilyushin said a key for him will be setting aside the nerves that come with the realization at this point in the season every time you step on a court could be the last one of your college career.
“If I think about it at all I’m going to play tight, and that’s not my game at all,” Ilyushin said. “I need to be as calm and loose in my matches to play as well as I need to as the top player, so I hope that’s not a factor in my mind.”