Hunter also is shooting 27.8 percent on three-pointers in the NCAA tournament, down from 47.3 percent in the regular season.
"I feel like I haven’t been playing that well,” Hunter said, “but it’s fine. I’ll be ready this week, and I’m for sure going to play a lot better.”
Hunter’s teammates and Coach Tony Bennett, however, disagree about his self-professed downturn. And they’re not worried one iota about the state of the Hunter’s offensive game entering Saturday night’s national semifinal against No. 5 seed Auburn at U.S. Bank Stadium.
“Dre’s been playing great for us still,” junior guard-forward Braxton Key said. “Whether it’s scoring or not, he’s doing what the team needs him to do. The Purdue game, he came up really big for us with that clutch basket. It should have been an and-one, but it wasn’t.
“So he’s been doing a great job. We’re not really down on him.”
The field goal to which Key was referring, a layup in overtime that put Virginia ahead of the Boilermakers for good at 76-75 with 29 seconds left in the extra frame, also had Bennett praising his most versatile player, especially considering the gaffe on Hunter’s part one possession earlier.
With a minute to play, Hunter drove to the rim only to have the ball bounce off his leg and out of bounds. Carsen Edwards then gave Purdue a one-point lead on a floater.
That Hunter was able to put that miscue behind him to produce a decisive basket spoke volumes, according to Bennett, about Hunter’s willingness to embrace big moments.
"He made some difficult plays at difficult times,” Bennett said. “He’s guarded hard when his shot wasn’t going in, so part of this is him growing and learning. But we’re going to need everybody at our best to move on in this tournament.
“But as I say, all good players, they have to be defined by more than just if the ball’s going in the basket.”
Hunter, to be sure, has done that and much more throughout the season in helping the Cavaliers reach the Final Four for the first time since 1984 and for the first time under Bennett.
He was selected ACC defensive player of the year as well as first-team all-ACC, electing to come back to play even though Hunter was a projected first-round pick following 2017-18, when the Cavaliers bowed out infamously in the round of 64 as a No. 1 seed.
Hunter did not play in the NCAA tournament last season because of a broken wrist, and the sting of that loss in part compelled Hunter to delay his NBA career for a shot at redemption.
His NBA draft stock also has gone north this season, with multiple mock draft websites projecting Hunter as a lottery pick, perhaps even in the top five. Hunter also has drawn comparisons to Kawhi Leonard when one of the world’s top two-way players was in college at San Diego State and climbing NBA draft boards.
“He kind of carried us against Gardner-Webb,” Cavaliers guard Ty Jerome said, referring to Hunter’s 23 points in the round-of-64 win. “Everyone kind of forgets that. He had the game-winning layup against Purdue. He’s doing a lot of things people aren’t noticing because they see the missed shots.”
Even though Hunter has logged just one game of at least 20 points over his past seven after four in as many previous games, his hidden impact on the court is among what teammates said they appreciate the most.
With Hunter almost always drawing elevated attention from opponents, space frequently opens for guards either to get clean looks from three-point range or to drive to the rim through gaps.
“He’s been everything for us,” Jerome said. “He’s guarding the other team’s best player. He’s just been so versatile for us on offense and defense. To see him come this far has been really special.”
Then there’s the benefit for frontcourt players such as Mamadi Diakite, Jack Salt and Jay Huff, all of whom can carve out additional interior space with post defenders favoring Hunter.
Diakite, in fact, has lauded Hunter for the redshirt junior’s dramatic spike in scoring during this NCAA tournament because of the all the focus that comes in Hunter’s direction. During the first weekend of the NCAA tournament, Diakite combined to score 31 points, the best two-game stretch of his career.
Hunter’s playing time, even though he’s not scoring in bunches, underscores his value to the Cavaliers. He’s averaging 35.5 minutes in the NCAA tournament, second only to Jerome.
“I don’t think anybody necessarily on our team has to focus on, ‘Okay, I have to go in and have a big scoring game,’ which is what’s great about our team,” Huff said. “Anybody can score 20 at any given moment. But I think [Hunter’s] going to do what he has to do, and that’s probably going to involve quite a bit of scoring.”
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