by Chuck Pool (email@example.com) -
The Rice men's tennis team may be the defending champions and lone ranked team heading into the 2017 Conference USA Championship, but Rice head coach Efe Ustundag hardly sees his Owls as a heavy favorite to earn the first repeat conference title in 45 years.
Rice opens defense of the title it won at home at the George R. Brown Tennis Center on Friday when they take on UTSA at 2 p.m. They are looking to become the first Rice team to win consecutive conference titles since the Owls captured five consecutive Southwest Conference titles from 1968-72.
Owls Sweep Showcase
Jamie Malik and Oscar Janglin completed an unbeaten weekend in which they won three matches in straight sets to pace the Rice Owls to a pair of wins and close out an unbeaten slate in the second annual C-USA Showcase at the Southern Miss Tennis Complex on Saturday.
Since conference teams do not play a full regular season schedule against each other, the national rankings have been the standard to use for setting the seeds, sometimes with confusing results.
"In 2015 we lost to both Old Dominion and UTSA in the regular season, but we went into the tournament with the top seed because of some key wins against ranked teams on our schedule," Ustundag noted. The Owls have won their last nine head-to-head meetings with conference opponents, including a pair of wins over the Roadrunners, who defeated Rice to win the 2015 title.
Six of those nine wins have come in the Conference USA Showcase, a mid-year round robin event, but Ustundag said the three wins this year over UAB, Southern Miss and UTSA in Hattiesburg only reinforced his belief that this year's field is much stronger.
"We had three battles on our hands this year. We have the target on our backs this year and we know that we will get everyone's best shot. There will be no upsets this weekend because of the strength of the teams in the field. We will find out if we are the best team or not this weekend on court, and that is what makes it exciting."