Virginia guard De’Andre Hunter is out for the NCAA tournament. Hunter, a redshirt freshman, was the ACC’s Sixth Man of the Year and a key cog for the No. 1 overall seed. He scored 9.2 points and 3.5 rebounds in 20 minutes per game.
Hunter is a bench player, but he was crucial for Tony Bennett’s Cavaliers. He played the fifth-most minutes on the team and was among its most versatile defenders. The Hoos have mostly stuck to a slim eight-man rotation, making his loss all the harder to swallow.
So, the best team in college basketball lost one of its best players on the eve of the NCAA tournament. This is not good at all. But is it fatal to that team’s chances? Let’s talk about it.
Alex Kirshner: You think Virginia’s probably screwed, don’t you?
Matt Ellentuck: This isn’t great. Virginia is obviously not the type of star-studded team other top seeds are, where losing one player is crippling, but Hunter is a do-it-all type of guy for the Cavaliers. He’s only 6’7 or so, but with a 7’2 wingspan he’s been able switch on to all five positions, and that’s where he’ll be missed most.
Screwed is an overstatement, but UVA fans can’t feel comfortable with this news.
What are you thinking?
Alex: I was down about their chances already, but most of that was just me being a hater. (We both went to Maryland, for those reading this.) Virginia plays at a sloth’s pace and has in the past cratered offensively at the worst possible moments in the tournament.
The thing that seemed most problematic to me is that Virginia only uses an eight-man rotation as is. Winning two games in three days on back-to-back-to-back weekends with seven guys in the rotation is going to be hard. I figured it hadn’t happened in a long time, but then I looked, and Kentucky did it in 2012, and Louisville did it in 2013. Eight or nine is more common, but you can pull this off with a short bench. And maybe Tony Bennett’s just going to pull someone off the end of that bench, anyway.
So, maybe it can happen. This is the best team in the country. Do you not think they can defend teams without one guy on the court for 20 minutes a night?
Matt: I really, really worry about what their Sweet 16 matchup, if things play out as we think. They could draw either Kentucky or Arizona, both of which rank in the top 10 in KenPom’s average height measurement.
Kentucky has an endless depth chart filled with 6’8 or larger forwards who Hunter would have been the go-to guy to lock down. Arizona will continue to feed future first-round big man DeAndre Ayton, and Hunter won’t be there to bother him.
Alex: Let me stop you there. Ayton’s getting his 45 points and 28 rebounds no matter what. Hunter wasn’t doing anything about that.
Matt: Fair. But he has the length to help contain Ayton on double-teams. When your team only plays eight guys, any single one is a big piece to a defensive puzzle, and Hunter means more than just any guy on that roster.
Now the weight will be on Jack Salt and Mamadi Diakite’s shoulders to handle whichever beasts enter the paint. Maybe that’ll work ... but also maybe it won’t.
We keep talking about defense, but what about Virginia’s offense? How bad does losing Hunter sting?
Alex: Moderately. I might be more worried there than I am on defense, because Bennett’s pack-line has always been able to prevent dudes from scoring. Hunter’s nine points a game were fourth-most on the team, but UVA only had four guys whom it asked to shoot with any consistency. The Hoos have three higher-scoring guards in Kyle Guy, Devon Hall, and Ty Jerome, but they don’t have a ton in the way of frontcourt scoring. Hunter provided some of that — he’s listed as a guard, but like you said, he plays everywhere.
Hunter was a usage monster. He took shots on one in four trips when he was on the court, and his only teammate who’s been nearly that ball-dominant is Guy. Someone’s going to have to make up for those shots. Is that going to be Hall, who’s 6’5 and could play power forward? I never doubt a Bennett team’s ability to prevent points, but I’m more skeptical that Virginia will score efficiently without Hunter on the court. What would you do?
Matt: **puts on analyst hat** Listen, I did watch Kyle Guy for a weekend at a recruiting clinic when he was in high school, and that kid can really score when he’s asked — especially in the clutch. His 13 shots per game will probably have to go up, and a few of those off-balance twos will need to become threes, but I think his play will be key.
Jerome and Hall will have to step it up too, with a concerted effort to get to the line — something this team really struggles to do — but it’s possible they can recover on offense in Hunter’s absence. That only happens, though, if their defense looks close to what it did pre-Hunter injury.
Let’s get to it: Where are you taking Virginia in your bracket?
Alex: You first.
Matt: Originally, I had Virginia winning it all. Now I have Arizona over them in the Sweet 16.
Alex: Originally, I had Virginia losing to Arizona in the Sweet 16.
Matt: And now?
Alex: I still have Virginia losing to Arizona in the Sweet 16. But I might be wrong, and I don’t think Hunter’s injury is the kiss of death that some people will hope it is.