Ball State men's tennis is set to begin its season this weekend with a pair of road matches at Notre Dame and Purdue.

Head coach Bill Richards said the schedule, which also includes matches against Indiana, Michigan State and No. 17 Illinois, was designed to challenge the Cardinals before Mid-American Conference play begins in March.

"It's definitely a measuring stick," Richards said. "You always want to see how you stack up against the Power Five teams, the Power Five individuals. I think you just try to come out of every match looking at what is it that your opponent really did, and what is it that you have to do better. Again, I think we look at it from a really broad standpoint ... use the good competition to try to raise your level of play."

Last season, the Cardinals finished 13-12 and 4-3 in MAC play, and Ball State returns all six players who regularly competed in singles last season. Senior Lucas Andersen, who was named first-team All-MAC last season, won the MAC's Flight 1 Men's Singles Championship this fall.

"He's definitely our leader by example," Richards said. "He's an incredibly hard worker."

The Cardinals also bring back second-team All-MAC player Andrew Stutz, a senior who often paired with Andersen in doubles. Andersen and Stutz were 22-10 as a unit last season, but every other doubles pairing had a combined 41-54 record.

"Doubles was kind of a liability for us last year," Richards said. "We didn't really perform as well as we needed to in doubles in a lot of matches, so we're trying to look at some different options this year and different people, and it's been a point of emphasis for us."

Richards said the new pairings include the Guzina twins, Marko and Nemanja.

"I think that they've shown a lot of improvement from last year to this year, especially in doubles," Richards said. "Neither one of them played doubles last year, regularly, and both of them are solidly in our doubles lineup at this point of the year."

The Canadian sophomores don't play together though. Richards said, at least to begin the season, Marko will be paired with senior Patrick Downs while Nemanja will play with sophomore Connor Andersen — Lucas's younger brother.

"It's a low-maintenance team," Richards said. "They come to work every day and try to get better. It's a really easy group to manage, so I think that goes a long way in terms of the end result."

Every season, Richards said, the goal is to win the conference. But until conference play starts, the team will focus on improving against a non-conference schedule stacked with Big 10 teams.

"It is very much an individual sport, and we're really making it into a team sport at the high school and college level," Richards said. "I think, basically, you approach it both from an individual standpoint and a team standpoint. You have individual goals, and you have team goals—and the bottom line is that if each individual improves and gets better and does all the right things, then that's going to reflect positively on the team."

The Cardinals start their season Jan. 20 at Notre Dame, followed by a road match at Purdue Jan. 21. Ball State's home opener will be Jan. 22 against Eastern Illinois University.