“You’ve got to give Kyle freedom,” Bennett said, “because he’s a moment away from getting it rolling.”
His latest moment is overdue, however. Long overdue. The NCAA tournament has reduced Guy to a dude who must do other things to compensate for his broken J. He’s in a major shooting slump, which is unfortunate because otherwise Guy has been a tremendous ambassador for people dealing with anxiety and an honest spokesman providing insight into the Cavaliers’ long and difficult pursuit of redemption. Guy makes Virginia easier to embrace because he’s so open on a mostly guarded team.
He represents the humanity — the joy, the regret, the goofiness — of a Virginia program built on stodgy excellence. During this arduous Elite Eight run, the Cavaliers have yet to play consistently at their normal, dominant level, but they’re winning on experience, defense and poise. If they want to beat Purdue in the South Region final Saturday night and advance to the Final Four, they’re going to need to find their offense. It would help a great deal if Guy found his shot.
Purdue is more than capable of executing against an elite defense. The Boilermakers rank fourth in the nation in offensive efficiency. Virginia, despite its wobbly tournament performance, ranks just ahead of them at No. 3. If both teams play their best, this game should look like something right between Purdue’s 99-94 overtime thriller against Tennessee on Thursday night and Virginia’s 53-49, cover-your-eyes slog against Oregon. A final score in the 70s, perhaps? Unless Guy is right, Virginia will have to strain to produce that much offense.
In three tournament games, Guy is averaging only 7.3 points, about half his normal output. He is shooting 21 percent from the field; he has missed 30 of 38 shots . He has missed 23 of his 26 three-pointers. He had missed 17 straight three-pointers before hitting a couple against Oregon.
True to his character, Guy isn’t letting the slump get to him. His mood hasn’t changed. He’s still laughing and joking that his misses are robbing Kihei Clark and Ty Jerome of assists. He’s doing other things to help Virginia, tightening up his defense and setting up teammates for good looks. He’s playing so well overall that Bennett has kept Guy on the court for all but five minutes over the past three games.
Still, Virginia needs his jumper. The shot still “feels great,” Guy said.
“So I’m going to keep shooting,” he said. “I don’t really feel like I’m ever out of rhythm. So as long as they have confidence in me, I’ll always have confidence in myself.”
There are two ways to look at Guy’s struggles. You can be impressed that Virginia has been resourceful enough to win three tournament games without his shooting and ponder how dangerous the team will be when his shooting touch returns. Or you can worry that his struggles will be the ill-timed misfortune that keeps the Cavaliers from reaching the Final Four again.
The scrutiny of the NCAA tournament makes it hard for a player to relax when things go wrong, no matter what kind of front he puts up. Story lines become self-fulfilling prophecies. But Guy has endured a long battle with anxiety. He has been treated for it. He’s open about it. He plays basketball with a healthy perspective and an understanding that invincibility is not the goal.
If Virginia breaks through and goes to the Final Four for the first time under Bennett, it will be quite the story of owning up to vulnerability to conquer it. Some fans don’t want to hear about the first-round loss to Maryland Baltimore County anymore or the blown lead against Syracuse in the 2016 Elite Eight or any of the Cavaliers’ tournament failures. They just want it to disappear — from every story, from every joke, from every thought — even though Bennett brings it up at every media availability and the entire team welcomes this challenge.
There is no denial, no willful ignorance, no “fuhgettaboutit!” anger around Virginia. It’s fascinating. Sometimes the Cavaliers could stand to be less introspective and more ornery, but that is not their way. Just like their disciplined style of play, they’re going to do what works for them. And it’s almost impossible not to appreciate the route they have taken on this journey and the life lessons they’re learning by facing their fears.
It’s as important as a Final Four or a national title. Those are the arbitrary conditions we put on concepts such as redemption to make things nice and neat. But living isn’t nice and neat. Competing darn sure isn’t nice and neat. After all of the mental anguish, Virginia is chasing something greater than a trophy and a pair of net-cutting scissors. It would be a sweet sports ending, but beyond that, there are more battles to come. There are always more battles. It’s riveting to watch the Cavaliers, through sports, try to acquire the proper tools for resiliency.
So, yeah, Guy needs to shoot better. But this is so much deeper than his jumper.
On Saturday, Guy will get to play against a longtime friend and competitor, Purdue guard Ryan Cline. They grew up together in the Indianapolis area. They were teammates during the summer and rivals during the high school season. On Thursday, Cline drained seven three-pointers and shot Purdue into the Elite Eight. It reminded them both of a championship game performance that Cline had during an Adidas tournament in high school.
“That entire tournament, I played really bad,” Cline recalled. “Like, I shot the ball really bad. And I came out in the championship game and just came out of it at a good time.”
On Saturday, perhaps Guy will be the Indiana kid who breaks out at a good time.
“It’s surreal,” Guy said of being one game from the Final Four. “We’re dreaming with our eyes wide open right now.”
In his open-eyed dreams, Guy still makes those open shots. He won’t be afraid to fail, and, really, that’s the point of Virginia’s entire season.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.
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