Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy say they are working harder than they ever have in their life and are committed to competing for the national title next season.
This is not hyperbole. This is what Virginia’s leaders are determined to do since experiencing the worst and most embarrassing loss in their lives — the first ever 16 beating a 1 seed when UMBC shocked the Cavaliers and college basketball with a 74-54 victory on March 16 in Charlotte.
“I can’t wait to get back out there with this team," Guy told NCAA.com. “We’ve got a new focus this year that we didn’t have the previous year. This year, there’s not going to be any let up on the pedal in each and every game. Some people say you’ll get over the loss. That was history. It was made and we were on the wrong end. We want to be remembered for something better."
The reason for the optimism is simple: The Cavaliers have every piece needed to compete. Sure, Duke has the top three players in the class of 2018 and should be the most talented team in the country. But check the last three national championship games and you’ll find veteran teams in each one of them (see: Villanova-North Carolina; Gonzaga-North Carolina and Villanova-Michigan). Oh, and even when Duke and North Carolina have had more “talent,’’ this past season, it was Virginia that won the ACC regular-season and tournament title — and it wasn’t close.
“Everyone on the team knows we’re not going to be picked to win the ACC or the NCAA," said Guy. “That’s just how it’s been."
Virginia could have the goods with Jerome, Guy, the stunning return of De’Andre Hunter, who would have likely been a first-round pick had he declared. But Hunter, who missed the UMBC game with a wrist injury, decided to come back. That gives the Cavaliers as good a threesome on the wing/backcourt as any team in the country. Now, if Jack Salt can be an anchor inside and the Cavaliers can get the necessary role play then they can duplicate last season even with the losses of Nigel Johnson, Isaiah Wilkins and Devon Hall.
Guy said Salt is constantly working on his post moves, floaters, hook shots and trying to make an impact. Combine that with the improved play of big man Mamadi Diakite and Guy has reason to be giddy about this team. Hunter’s decision was even bigger boost to this team’s confidence in itself.
“Some of the reason he didn’t test was his wrist but he didn’t want to be the player that says look at me, I’m declaring for the draft,’’ said Jerome. “He’s not in a rush to et to the NBA or be in the G League. A lot of guys don’t understand. He’s focusing on our team and getting himself better.’’
Virginia lost just three games all season and went 17-1 in the ACC.
Could the Cavaliers have a similar season in 2019?
“We definitely have the potential to do so," said Jerome.
To understand why these two guards are so driven, you have to go back to the UMBC game.
Jerome said the Cavaliers expected to have a lead at the half but it was tied at 21-21. They were riding an emotional high only days earlier after winning the ACC tournament in Brooklyn.“We dominated one of the best leagues in the country and we had lost only two games all year," said Jerome. “I knew we could beat anybody on a given night. But we didn’t give enough attention to being in the moment."
Once UMBC got a lead in the second half, momentum swung and UVA struggled to regain control.
“It felt like we were drowning," said Guy. “It’s hard to put into words."
Guy said he didn’t think about the historic nature of the loss until UMBC grabbed the early lead.
“Then it pops in your mind subconsciously," said Guy of the potential of a historic loss. “It was a complete 180 (from the ACC tournament). I can’t put into words what that game was like. It’s something we hadn’t prepared for."
Both players credited UMBC, but as Guy said, “we were out-underdogged by the underdog."
Virginia coach Tony Bennett, who was a consensus national coach of the year, handled the postgame with professionalism and pride. The players said Bennett told them people would watch how they handle defeat, just like they would a victory.
“He let us know that one loss can’t define us," said Guy.
Guy said after that loss it was the lowest his confidence had ever been, but Bennett was quick to life his spirits.
“We lost our edge a bit," said Jerome. “We lost our swagger and the way we do things. We had our eyes on the national championship, maybe too much.’’Jerome said after Bennett’s locker room talk, he told Bennett and the rest of the team, "this is part of our story. We have the power to respond however we want."
So how can each player quantify that they are working harder?
“On the court, in the weight room, sleeping and eating right and not letting any of these categories slip,’’ said Jerome. “There is a sense of focus that wasn’t there this time last year."
Guy said he has changed his sleep habits. He’s making sure he drinks a gallon of water each day. He’s eating the right foods. He’s much more disciplined.
“I have a newfound hate of losing," said Guy. “I’ve built up a lot of anger about losing. I had never experienced that before. We will learn from that loss, because that loss was on such a big stage and will haunt us for the rest of our life."