By Norm Elrod
(CBS Philadelphia/CBS Local) — De’Andre Hunter, the Virginia Cavaliers’ small forward, is one of only two projected top-10 NBA Draft picks who made it to the Final Four. The other is Texas Tech’s Jarrett Culver. He is also the only top prospect from a top seed still playing. His Virginia team will meet Auburn in Saturday’s first game, as their quest to erase the memory of last year’s opening-round loss to a 16-seed continues. According to CBS Sports analysts Grant Hill and Bill Raftery, it will be an “interesting contrast of styles.’
Born in Philadelphia, Hunter played high school basketball at Friends’ Central School near the city. Then a forward, he showed serious athleticism and shined on defense, with the ability to defend multiple positions. His athleticism came through on offense too, where he averaged 21.6 points and five assists per game his junior year and 23.5 points and three assists his senior year. Hunter was among the finalists for Pennsylvania Player of the Year in his final high school season. But even before it started, with widespread interest from schools like Maryland and Notre Dame, he committed to play at Virginia.
His college career didn’t start quite as he had planned. For reasons largely beyond his control, Hunter was asked to redshirt his freshman year. Adding another perimeter player to the roster would limit minutes for the players already there. Besides, Virginia needed to balance out its classes. True freshman Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy got the roster nod, while Hunter and Jay Huff had to wait.
The 6’7″ forward didn’t make much of an impact in his first appearance, scoring 0 points in 10 minutes, with a steal and a foul, as Virginia knocked off UNC Greensboro to open it 2017-18 season. Both his minutes and scoring output improved as the season progressed. By the middle of the season, Hunter was frequently contributing double-digits while shooting 48.8% from the field. He would go on to win the ACC Sixth Man of the Year and make the All-Freshman team.
But his season ended early, when he broke his wrist in the Cavaliers’ conference championship game. Virginia beat North Carolina to win the ACC Tournament, but Hunter’s injury would require surgery. Without its sixth man, the top-seed would lose it’s opening-round game of the NCAA Tournament to UMBC. It was the first time a one-seed ever lost to a 16-seed.
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Despite speculation that Hunter might enter the 2018 NBA Draft, he returned for his sophomore season. Now a starter, the future NBA first-rounder became more of a force at both ends of the court. His shooting evolved, as did his defense. No longer considered a three-and-D prospect, he showed his ability to rebound and defend multiple positions. His season, during which he averaged 15.6 points per game for a Virginia team full of scorers, earned him strong consideration for the Wooden Award, given to college basketball’s player of the year.
Virginia earned the top seed in this year’s NCAA Tournament after losing to Florida State in the ACC Tournament. The Cavaliers have advanced to the Final Four, where they will face a tough Auburn squad.