DOUGHERTY: Is Hunter Virginia’s saving grace?

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Redshirt freshman guard De'Andre Hunter has provided Virginia with an offensive spark in ACC play.

Richard Dizon | Cavalier Daily

Virginia men’s basketball. Thirty-nine points.

If I said those two phrases in a sentence together, a Cavalier faithful would probably expect the word “allowed” to bridge them. “Scored” is the word I must use to link the two, as it describes Virginia’s output against Florida in last year’s NCAA Tournament Round of 32.

It was a game that was as brutal to watch as it sounds. The Cavaliers threw up 15 attempts from beyond the arc and missed all but one. No player hit double-digit scoring. Three starters went scoreless.

The bad taste left in Virginia fans’ mouths after that game was building the entire season, as the team struggled countless times to fight through an offensive funk. Unfortunately for Coach Tony Bennett, he was missing the one piece that could have gotten his team back on track -- a true interior scorer.

It wasn’t supposed to be that hard for Bennett and the Cavaliers. Sure, the team had just graduated forward Anthony Gill — who averaged 13.8 points in his senior season, doing most of his work down low — but Bennett had a clear succession plan in Memphis transfer Austin Nichols. That experiment lasted all of one game before Nichols was kicked off the team for conduct violations. With the recruiting period for the 2017-18 season waning, Bennett was tasked with developing an interior scoring with the crop of talent he already possessed.

When redshirt freshman guard De’Andre Hunter stepped onto the court this season, Bennett found his answer.

After developing in his coach’s system for a year, Hunter was immediately given chances in the rotation to flash his potential once this season got underway. Despite a huge 23-point game against Monmouth, Hunter was relatively quiet in non-conference play, only topping double-digits twice in 11 other games.

Now? He’s the driving force behind Virginia’s 7-0 start to conference play.

As Hunter has grown his confidence as a versatile scorer, the Virginia mover-blocker offense has begun to regain its 2015 form. The Philadelphia native has figured out how to use his length to stretch the defense inside and drive for tough layups. He leads all Virginia players in two-point field goal percentage at a 59.2 percent clip.

In addition to his scoring adeptness from the field, Hunter has also helped Virginia with his ability to get to the charity stripe. His 6.0 free-throw attempts for 40 minutes lead the team, using his driving tenacity to get whistles in big moments. He has also shown his ability to draw contact in transition — an area the Cavaliers have also improved greatly in this season.

The importance of Hunter’s emergence reaches beyond his individual success, as his elevated play has also improved the scoring efficiency of Virginia’s perimeter players. The trio of Cavalier starting guards — senior Devon Hall and sophomores Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome — all have shot over 40 percent from beyond the arc this season. A big reason why? Opponents are respecting Hunter on the inside, sliding inwards to give the guards more space to shoot threes. The offense simply flows better with Hunter on the floor, with Bennett able to run his inside-outside offensive strategy more effectively.

Virginia basketball is back in the national spotlight with its undefeated start to ACC play, and much of the team’s success can be traced back to Hunter’s emergence. Hunter has scored in double-figures in all but two conference games, one of which he only played six minutes in. But Hunter isn’t merely contributing off the bench — he is leading Virginia to big victories.

The Syracuse game best epitomizes Hunter’s game-changing presence. Virginia was struggling to find open shots against the Orange’s famous zone defense early on as they took away easy inside looks. Hunter’s entrance into the game gave Virginia a major lift. The freshman sat inside the zone all night and powered his way to the basket over and over, ending the game with 15 crucial points on 6-12 shooting. Once the Orange had to focus on taking him away, Guy started getting open looks outside and carried the team to victory with 22 points on the strength of five three-pointers. 

Most recently, Bennett once again turned to Hunter against Wake Forest when the Cavaliers were scuffling on offense against the zone, and the freshman turned in another signature performance. His 16 points — many of which were over seven-foot-one junior center Doral Moore — got Virginia off of upset alert.

This Virginia team is balanced and lethal on offense. It would be foolish to say Hunter is the only reason for this, or that the typical freshman struggles are completely behind him. But if one thing is certain, it is that his presence on the floor has given a team struggling to find an offensive identity footing, at long last.

After that disillusioning loss to Florida — and the uncertainties that followed — Hunter is helping bring confidence back to the Cavalier fan base as he builds his own.  

Alec Dougherty is a Sports Editor for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at a.dougherty@cavalierdaily.com or on Twitter at @aduggs96.

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