Last Saturday's 7-0 victory over Denver closed out the Minnesota men's tennis team's 2011 non-conference schedule and now, with a 2-0 in-conference record, the team will pick up Big Ten play with a road trip to Michigan. The 24th-ranked Gophers will take on No. 53 Michigan State on Saturday and No. 22 Michigan on Sunday.
UM's remaining Big Ten schedule is a grueling one-seven of the Gophers' eight final opponents are currently ranked-but the team has faced some equally solid competition in preparation. Seven of Minnesota's 11 non-conference matches came against teams ranked in the nation's top 41 and the Gophers won five of those contests. Minnesota's only losses have come against UCLA and Washington, teams ranked sixth and 23rd, respectively, at the time of the matches. Both of those matches were on the road on the West Coast.
After the 4-0 loss to the Bruins in their second match of the season, the Gophers reeled off seven straight wins before falling to the Huskies. Since then, UM has recorded a down-to-the-wire 4-3 victory over Miami, a 6-1 thumping of Northwestern, and its first sweep of the season against Denver.
"For the most part, up and down the lineup, the guys are playing pretty good tennis and are playing up to or close to their ability on a consistent basis," said Gopher head coach Geoff Young. "I feel like we're fine and that we're in a great spot entering the Big Ten season. The Big Ten matches are a little more intense and the stakes are a little bit higher."
The Gophers will start the weekend on Saturday in East Lansing, Mich. against Michigan State. The 13-4 Spartans, who won their first nine matches and are 11-2 at home, are on a three-game losing skid with all three losses coming at the hands of Big Ten opponents: Michigan, Indiana, and Purdue. UM is 41-14 all-time against the Spartans and beat them 5-2 last year thanks in large part to Julian Dehn, who won in both singles and doubles play.
"Michigan State is much improved," said Young. "That's going to be a battle, so we have to make sure we don't look ahead [to Michigan on Sunday]. That's going to be a tough match."
On Sunday, Minnesota will head about 70 miles southeast to Ann Arbor, Mich. to play for the Little Brown Jug against Michigan at the Varsity Tennis Center. The Wolverines are 9-6 on the year with a 2-1 record in the Big Ten play. Four of their wins have come against top-25 opponents. Michigan will host Wisconsin on Saturday, causing the Wolverines to play back-to-back matches for the first time all season. Minnesota has won only 25 of 73 matches all-time against the Wolverines and lost both times the teams met last season.
Unlike the Gophers, who have had Dehn, Brendan Ruddock, and Phillip Arndt go a combined 24-7 when playing at No. 4-6, the Wolverines' best strength comes at the top. No. 21-ranked Evan King and No. 57-ranked Jason Jung have won 25 of 30 matches at the top two positions in singles play.
"I think the guys are really looking forward to [Michigan]," Young said. "They're a good team and it's an opportunity to beat a team that's done well this year."
Minnesota will follow this weekend's road trip with a season-high four-game homestand. Between April 8 and April 17, the Gophers will host No. 29 Indiana, No. 60 Purdue, Penn State, and No. 3 Ohio State at the Baseline Tennis Center.