Virginia Cavaliers basketball fans were devastated earlier today with the news that star freshman DeAndre Hunter will miss the NCAA Tournament with a broken wrist. Hunter was named the ACC Sixth Man of the Year and has been one of the key cogs in the Cavaliers’ run to the ACC Regular Season and Tournament titles, so it’s natural to assume that his absence solidifies yet another March without a trip to the Final Four. However, before we all panic, let’s take a moment to remember back earlier in the season before Hunter’s emergence, and try and forecast how they might matchup with potential opponents in his absence.
Spoiler alert from the article title: the Hoos can still make the Final Four.
Life Before DeAndre
While it seems impossible now to imagine these Cavaliers without Hunter on the floor, it was only a couple of months ago where he was mostly an afterthought towards the back end of the rotation. Over a three week span from Thanksgiving until mid-December Virginia went 2-1 in three games against NCAA Tournament teams (the Rhode Island Rams, West Virginia Mountaineers, and Davidson Wildcats) where Hunter played sparingly or had a negligible impact. Against Rhode Island and Davidson, Hunter played seven minutes each, totaling two points, and against West Virginia he played 14 minutes but went 0-2 from the field, scoring his only three points from the free throw line. The easy assumption is that without Hunter the Hoos are good enough to beat lower seeded tournament squads, but lack the skill necessary to beat upper echelon talent and make a deep run. However, I would argue that the ceiling didn’t necessarily get lower, the margin for error just got slimmer, and while it sounds like semantics there is a difference.
Against Rhode Island and Davidson the Cavaliers succeeded because of strong scoring performances from Isaiah Wilkins (19 points against the Rams) and Nigel Johnson (22 points against the Wildcats) to supplement the usual stellar play of Devon Hall, Kyle Guy, and Ty Jerome. It seems simplistic to say “someone else just needs to step up and score a lot and the Hoos will be fine,” but the bigger takeaway from these games is that Virginia can still play a multitude of styles without Hunter.
Both Wilkins and sophomore Mamadi Diakite have the ability to knock down midrange jumpers and are comfortable playing the center role in smaller lineups. Moreover, Hunter’s absence doesn’t make these smaller lineups a thing of the past. Both Devon Hall and Ty Jerome are both 6’5”, just two inches shorter than Hunter and an inch taller than forward Marco Anthony, and have shown a willingness and comfort operating at the top of the key in offensive sets. These lineups will be used more sparingly than before, but they’re not off the table entirely.
Yes, that focuses on the two wins and the Hoos lost that third game against West Virginia. However a) that game was in Morgantown and there won’t be any more true road games this season and b) even with bad games from everyone except Kyle Guy and Devon Hall, that was a two point game with just over a minute left. With a better performance from any one of Ty Jerome (who played only 21 minutes due to foul trouble), Isaiah Wilkins (just two points) or Nigel Johnson (just one point on 0-4 shooting), Virginia wins that game. Even without Hunter, these Hoos have the talent to beat the top teams in the country; they just can’t afford another night with team-wide struggles.
Examining the Bracket Without Hunter
Hear me out here: without Hunter, UVa actually got a pretty favorable draw. If the seeds hold true to form, Virginia’s road to the Final Four goes through teams that all love playing two traditional bigs, which will likely be the Cavaliers’ preferred style going forward. I’m not going to discuss UMBC here because let’s just not go down that path so let’s examine the teams after that. Creighton’s best two players, Marcus Foster and Khyri Thomas are both guards, and this is still a Bluejay squad that went 0-4 against Marquette and Providence. It will likely be a close game, but this is exactly the type of team Virginia has beaten by 8-12 points for the last few years.
In the Sweet Sixteen Arizona is the looming giant that’s had Wahoo fans terrified since the brackets were announced, but they’re also the game where Hunter’s absence may be the least impactful. The Wildcats don’t just play two bigs, they play two giants in 7’0” senior Dusan Ristic and 7’1” freshman DeAndre Ayton. For some reason Sean Miller insists on playing these two together and for UVa’s sake let’s hope this continues. Against the Wildcats twin towers, Virginia will certainly have two of Salt, Wilkins, and Diakite on the floor at all times, meaning any minutes Hunter would’ve gotten would likely have come at the wing. Arizona is definitely still a team to be worried about, but if you thought the Hoos could beat them before you shouldn’t change your thinking now.
That leaves a potential Elite Eight matchup with Cincinnati. For those unfamiliar with Cincinnati, they’re the team Florida State aspires to be when they grow up. The Bearcats play a physical defensive style and effectively slow down the pace of the game, but their offense can stall for stretches. They held 17 opponents to 55 points or fewer this season, but also routinely scored in the low 60s or upper 50s themselves against quality opponents. Cincinnati’s style has been incredibly effective, but playing it against the Hoos is like forcing a pig to roll around in the mud, it only takes a minute until you realize they love it. Even without Hunter, this is the type of opponent for which Virginia should be incredibly well prepared and a Hunter-less UVa offense is still better than the Bearcats offense as full strength.
Look, losing Hunter hurts. He had been a revelation and was arguably the most purely talented player on the Virginia roster. But he wasn’t the only talented player on the roster, and the bracket still lines up nicely in his absence with no dynamic offense such as Duke or Villanova looming before San Antonio. The margin for error is definitely smaller, but the ceiling is still the roof.