Shortly after losing in the ACC tournament semifinals last week, Virginia men’s basketball coach Tony Bennett began peeking ahead to the NCAA tournament, mentioning first the relative good health of the Cavaliers.
Junior guard Kyle Guy also emphasized the significance of having a complete roster several days before the NCAA revealed Virginia (29-3), the top seed in the South Region, would be facing No. 16 seed Gardner-Webb (23-11) on Friday afternoon at Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, S.C.
Neither Bennett nor Guy identified a specific player, but it was clear to whom they were referring: De’Andre Hunter.
Last season, Hunter broke his left wrist during the ACC tournament semifinals when he used his left hand to brace himself while falling awkwardly. He went on to play in the ACC championship game, which Virginia won, before the severity of the injury was revealed. Two days after the Cavaliers received the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament, Bennett announced Hunter’s season was over.
He was able to provide only vocal support from the bench in Virginia’s opener against Maryland Baltimore County. The Cavaliers became the first No. 1 seed in NCAA men’s tournament history to lose to a No. 16 seed.
“Just excited for myself and more for my team,” Hunter said of the anticipation of playing in his first NCAA tournament. “Just to get back to this stage and have the same opportunity as last year, to play against a 16 seed and possibly erase what happened last year.
“People are still going to remember, but we have another opportunity to do something really special.”
The 74-54 loss to UMBC underscored Hunter’s invaluable presence. For starters, the Retrievers made 12 of 24 three-point attempts with Virginia missing its most versatile on-ball defender. They also outrebounded Virginia 31-21. Hunter, the ACC sixth player of the year last season, was third on the Cavaliers in rebounding but first in rebounds per minute.
This season Hunter was named ACC defensive player of the year and first-team all-conference, having polished his game during the offseason and elevating his NBA draft stock to a projected top-five pick, according to multiple mock draft websites.
“De’Andre’s had a heck of a year,” Bennett said. “Defensively at times we’ve used him to guard ones, twos, threes and fours, and that can be helpful. Offensively we’ve used De’Andre some on the perimeter and some as kind of a stretch four, and he’s been able at times to manufacture some shots.
“Those things I think are really important when you have to account for him on the offensive end. At 6-7 or 6-8 with the long wingspan, just his dimensions are good, so just a high quality player obviously.”
Hunter could have been a high first-round pick as a freshman but elected to return to Charlottesville in part because of the distaste from last season ending far short of Virginia’s national championship aspirations.
“A few days after [the loss], I thought about how I wouldn’t be able to play with those guys, with that team, and it kind of hurt,” he said.
With Hunter as the leading scorer this season, the Cavaliers enter a program-record sixth consecutive NCAA tournament armed with their most efficient offense, at least based on advanced statistical metrics, since Bennett took over 10 years ago.
"He’s a monster to defend,” Gardner-Webb Coach Tim Craft said of the sophomore guard-forward.
Last season the Cavaliers were 30th in adjusted offensive efficiency. In 2016-17, Virginia ranked 50th and lost to Florida, 65-39, in the round of 32, scoring its fewest points of the season and making 29.6 percent from the field, including 1 of 15 three-point attempts (6.7 percent).
The Cavaliers this season are fourth nationally in three-point shooting at 40.9 percent, which ranks first among teams from the Power Five conferences.
Hunter is shooting 45.7 percent from beyond the arc. His three-point shooting percentage would be third best in the ACC if he had enough attempts to qualify.
“Just a guy that might be the most versatile guy in the tournament,” Virginia point guard Ty Jerome said of Hunter. “Can guard one through five almost, can get a bucket when you need one, isolation, offensive rebound, knock down catch-and-shoot shots, does everything. A guy you want on your team."