Was it Kyle?
Or was it Ty?
What about De’Andre?
As much as the theme of redemption undergirded this past Virginia men’s basketball season, so too did the debate over the program’s face. The two thoughts were not mutually exclusive. If ultimate vindication were to be achieved, if last March’s demons were to be buried for good, who among Virginia’s Big Three would be holding the shovel?
The debate raged through University of Virginia dorm rooms and lecture halls, Charlottesville sports bars and John Paul Jones Arena luxury boxes. It raged from November through April, and might still persist, even after Virginia’s 85-77 overtime NCAA Tournament championship win over Texas Tech on April 8, the day no Wahoos fan will soon forget, the day Tony Bennett’s team completed the most dramatic comeback story in college basketball history.
There are good arguments to make for all three candidates.
The most obvious choice might be Kyle Guy, the kid from Indianapolis, Indiana who embraced the Cavaliers’ loss to No. 16-seed UMBC last season, not shying away from Twitter trolls but retweeting them. He used his platform to speak openly and sincerely about his struggles with his mental health, a gesture admired by those who have experienced similar ills, this sports writer included.
His blistering 3-point shooting helped his case. The fullest extent of his brilliance was on display March 4, when he shot 8-for-10 from long range in the team’s 79-53 win at Syracuse as the NCAA Tournament trophy sat on a perch in the Carrier Dome. But to fawn excessively over Guy’s stroke would be to neglect the guard who, more often than not, had put the ball in his hands.
Ty Jerome was Virginia’s metronome, the cool-handed but fire-breathing floor general who was never afraid to take a big shot — though he also knew when he was best served setting up one of his contemporaries. As Virginia kicked off the ACC Tournament in mid-March, Jerome told reporters his job moving forward was to ensure his teammates were in sound headspaces.
That included De’Andre Hunter, the best NBA prospect among Virginia’s gilded guards. Hunter conceded after the team’s NCAA Tournament semifinal win over Auburn he can sometimes be too hard on himself. The redshirt sophomore had scored just four points in the first half against the Tigers, but a halftime conversation with Jerome changed things. And what did Jerome tell Hunter, who poured in 10 points in the second half?
“He said, I’m the best player in the country, and the team needs me,” Hunter said.
Hunter certainly played at an elite level in the national championship game, scoring 27 points — including one 3-pointer to send the game to overtime and another to put Virginia ahead for good in the extra period — while shutting down Red Raiders guard Jarrett Culver, a fellow likely 2019 NBA Draft lottery selection, when it mattered most.
So, the question at hand: Who was the face of this Virginia men’s basketball season?
The answer is more obvious than it appears.
It was Guy.
It was Jerome.
It was Hunter.
Guy was not the R.J. Barrett to Hunter’s Zion Williamson; Jerome was not the Dwayne Wade to Guy’s Chris Bosh. There was no single face of Virginia men’s basketball, because the very concept of an overarching hero is antithetical to the ethos of Bennett’s program, which has been built on five biblically derived pillars: thankfulness, unity, passion, servanthood and humility.
The trio worked perfectly in concert, each fulfilling a specific role: Guy, the can’t miss-shooter. Jerome, the heartbeat. Hunter, the defensive genius.
Throughout Final Four weekend, it was Guy and Jerome who addressed the media from the press conference podium. Hunter, in the middle of a shooting slump, answered questions from the locker room.
But after the victory, Hunter, fresh off his star-marking night, took a seat next to Bennett, with Guy and Jerome filing in next to him, less than three years after the trio first got to Grounds in the summer of 2016.
“We came in together, and said we were going to win a national championship,” Guy said, a snippet of championship netting looped around his backwards white championship snapback. “To be able to hug each other with confetti going everywhere and say, ‘We did it,’ it’s the best feeling I’ve ever felt in basketball.”
The future is uncertain. Social media hijinks aside, signs point to Hunter and Jerome entering this year’s NBA Draft. If Guy returns for his senior year, the 2019-20 campaign will double as a five-month ‘thank you’ tour.
But what the trio accomplished this season will be memorialized forever, in YouTube videos and social media posts and commemorative books and, perhaps most poignantly, in the minds of those who saw it happen, who saw three kids finally bring a championship celebration to Charlottesville. The shovel had three handles.