CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — His role demands patience. De’Andre Hunter’s entire Virginia basketball career has demanded it. The second half began Saturday against Virginia Tech — John Paul Jones Arena packed, 14,623 capacity, ESPN GameDay on hand, students poised to explode, the Cavs ready to jump to the top of the national rankings — and Hunter sat on Virginia’s bench for more than eight minutes after halftime.
“I mean, just got to be ready for the moment,’’ Hunter said after the game. “Be ready. When you’re in there, produce.”
The lessons began last season. The new guy from Friends’ Central was red-shirted as a freshman. Patience. In this current climate of college hoops, the one-and-done era, sitting for one is asking for sacrifice.
“I specifically talked to him about my position,’’ Virginia assistant coach Jason Williford said. “I played here. I played 36 total minutes as a freshman. Red-shirting, it’s not a bad thing.”
Still a tough sell.
“A hard pill to swallow,’’ Williford said. “He swallowed it.”
Even the start of this season, playing time was sporadic. Then Virginia started to play some more small ball, which meant time for a 6-foot-7 wing player who isn’t looked at as a primary ball-handler but has all these skills. Virginia is reaping rewards. You could argue that Hunter is, too, as his playing time has increased as the Cavaliers have climbed the national polls.
Other guys might start, but let’s cut to the chase: The 6-7 red-shirt freshman from Northeast Philadelphia could be Virginia’s most talented two-way player. Not down the road. Right now.
On a team that dictates games defensively — demanding patience from opponents — Hunter, from the Lawncrest section of Northeast Philadelphia, is often asked to guard an opponent’s most explosive guard. A Virginia Tech guard had gotten hot. Hunter was sent in to guard him. He cooled down. Meanwhile, forwards usually guard Hunter and sometimes have issues keeping him in front of them. The other guys switch to zone, and Hunter moves into the high post, an instant zone-busting matchup problem since he might face up and shoot, drive to the hoop or get a pass to a teammate down on the baseline.
Like Mikal Bridges at Villanova, taking the slower lane into college hoops traffic has proven beneficial. Hunter’s game now fits neatly into Virginia’s concepts. Cavs coach Tony Bennett trusts him. Once Hunter got out there in the second half against Virginia Tech, he never came out.
“I thought he was our best defender when we put him on [Virginia Tech’s Justin Robinson] there,’’ Bennett said after that game. “His length and his ability to do a good job laterally I thought really gave us a lift.”
Hunter slowed a hot shooter and made some big offensive plays of his own, getting the game into overtime. As it happened, the Cavs couldn’t hold an OT lead, missing free throws, and Virginia Tech pulled off a big upset.
More patience required.
To the surprise of Virginia’s own locker room, the Cavs moved up to the top spot in the Associated Press rankings despite the loss, becoming the first team to hit No. 1 directly off a loss, Virginia getting to the top for the first time since 1982, the Ralph Sampson era.
Tuesday night at Miami, the Cavaliers quieted any critics of whether they deserved to be on top. Hunter got in the second half more quickly, did his thing defensively again, often guarding freshman Lonnie Walker. The game stayed close, and a late Cavs run decided things, Hunter right in the middle of it.
Guarding Walker outside, Hunter got a hand on the ball as Walker started a move. There was a scramble on the floor and a tie-up, possession to Virginia. Hunter hit a three-pointer at the other end.
“This kid is going to be absolute star in the ACC,’’ ESPN analyst LaPhonso Ellis said.
A couple of minutes later, Hunter drove for a full-extension dunk in traffic.
“Hunter punches the basket,’’ Rece Davis said on ESPN.
“Wow,’’ Ellis said. “Explodes to the rim.”
Hunter added some free throws, hit a three-pointer, was fouled and made it a four-point play. A six-point Virginia lead turned into a 15-point lead in a little more than five minutes, with Hunter scoring 13 points. He finished with 22 points in 30 minutes.
Talking last week, Hunter said he used his freshman year sitting out to think about his future — “definitely got stronger, learned the defensive system. My offensive versatility got better. I was more wing-oriented, I guess, in high school. My low post game has gotten a lot better.”
In the high post against a zone, “I’m just trying to get [a defender] off balance, using my jab steps and fakes.”
Early in the season, playing time still to be earned, “I was staying ready. I knew we had a lot of games left.”
What was the message from his coaches?
“The same thing, telling me to stay ready,’’ Hunter said.
A chicken and egg question: Did Hunter get more time because of his improved play or did his play improve because of increased time? Let’s assume yes and yes.
“He’s got a skill set,’’ Williford, the assistant coach, said. “He’s got an ability to shoot it and handle it. He can post up. He’s a good all-around player, and Tony really loves completeness. That’s the first thing he says. He really fits who we are.”
High school stars rarely have to show much defensive prowess, so sitting out last season was helpful. “We threw him in a lot of our close-out drills, our breakdown drills,’’ Williford said. “He got a lot of those reps. A lot of that after practice. You learn the terminology. You’re watching the film. He gradually got better and better.”
They’d been convinced when they began recruiting him. Williford remembers a game when Hunter, playing for the Philly Pride travel team, held his own with Miles Bridges, now a Michigan State star.
“I remember getting a call,’’ Williford said. “Tony was like, ‘We have to get him.’ ’’
It wasn’t easy, waiting to see the court.
“You know, he’s not the most talkative kid, so you never know where his mind is,’’ Williford said. “He just looks at you, ‘Yeah, I got you. I got you.’ It was always a process.’’
Now, the outside world is doing the talking about a player worth waiting for.