CHARLOTTESVILLE — De’Andre Hunter ranks no higher than fourth on the Virginia men’s basketball team in any major statistical category. A better measure of his importance to the nation’s top-ranked team could be found during a pivotal moment of its signature victory.
The redshirt freshman had just made a twisting layup to put Virginia ahead to stay late in the second half against Duke when he landed awkwardly. Though the Cavaliers were on the verge of their first victory at Cameron Indoor Stadium since 1995, a collective hush fell over the bench as Hunter lay on the court clutching his right ankle.
An MRI exam the next day revealed no structural damage, much to the relief of the Cavaliers, who have gone from unranked to No. 1 in both major polls thanks in no small part to Hunter’s contributions. As several ACC coaches have attested, they go well beyond 8.9 points and 3.2 rebounds per game.
“He’s really good, and obviously that’s a credit to Virginia and their development,” said Georgia Tech Coach Josh Pastner, who has been on the losing end of both games to the Cavaliers this season, including 65-54 on Wednesday night. “I think he’s a big X-factor and a big key for them.”
As Virginia (25-2, 14-1) enters Saturday’s road game against Pittsburgh (8-21, 0-16), the 6-foot-7 guard-forward has parlayed versatility into indispensability. Coach Tony Bennett has made Hunter a matchup headache for virtually every team in the ACC, playing him at off-guard, small forward and power forward. The moves create mismatches that allow the contender for ACC sixth man of the year to dribble by slower-footed post players for layups and to shoot over shorter defenders.
One such tactical decision proved especially beneficial during a 59-44 victory over Syracuse on Feb. 3 at the Carrier Dome, among the most inhospitable venues in the country for opposing teams.
With Hunter handling the ball in the high post against the Orange’s vaunted zone defense, Virginia repeatedly got to the rim with little resistance in the second half. Hunter finished with 15 points, five rebounds and a career-high six assists, feeding forwards Isaiah Wilkins and Mamadi Diakite for layups and dunks.
All Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim could do during his postgame news conference was hang his head when talking about breakdowns in defending Hunter, who revealed he grew up a Syracuse fan but soured on the Orange when he wasn’t offered a scholarship.
“I think I’m getting better and better,” said Hunter, a native of Philadelphia heading back to play in his home state for the first time in his college career. “Early in the season I was kind of tentative and not too aggressive, and my teammates kind of got on me for that, so as the season went on, I just tried to get more and more aggressive and help the team in any way possible.”
Miami Coach Jim Larranaga, much to his displeasure, got his first in-person look at Hunter’s scoring ability last week. Hunter’s 22 points, his most in an ACC game, included 10 in a row late in the second half on the way to a 59-50 win in Coral Gables, Fla. Hunter’s scoring binge came after the Hurricanes had gotten within four.
Time and again in the game, Hunter provided a clutch basket when Miami had threatened to take the lead, prompting Larranaga to reply unequivocally when asked if he could pinpoint the reasons for the loss.
“Yeah, they had De’Andre Hunter,” Larranaga said. “He was the answer to every one of the questions we presented to them.”
Hunter’s fearlessness was never more emphatically on display than when facing the Blue Devils. On multiple occasions, he drove deep into the lane for layups against Duke’s twin towers of Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter Jr., both projected NBA lottery picks, in collecting 12 points.
Three weeks earlier during a 61-49 win against North Carolina, Hunter gathered a loose ball by the baseline midway through the second half, dribbled to the basket and elevated with Tar Heels guard Joel Berry II leaping to challenge the shot.
Hunter dunked on the reigning Final Four most outstanding player, drawing some of the most raucous applause this season at John Paul Jones Arena.
It was only Hunter’s second game playing at the stretch-four in Bennett’s smaller lineup, but he finished with 10 points in a triumph signaling Virginia’s initial emergence as contender for ACC supremacy.
Seven weeks later, the Cavaliers are assured of the top seed in the ACC tournament and at least a share of a third regular season championship in five years under Bennett even without their top two scorers from last season.
It’s hardly a coincidence, according to teammates, that the addition of Hunter in the lineup coincides with Virginia’s ascent to the top of the Associated Press rankings for the first time since 1982 and to No. 1 in the KenPom.com advanced analytics ratings for much of this season.
“In games he’s improved tremendously,” starting center Jack Salt, a senior, said of Hunter. “In practice, in the summer, in pickup, he was doing the exact same thing, so I mean it’s nothing new to us, but it’s definitely new to people seeing games.”
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