De’Andre Hunter out: How does #1 Virginia adjust without sixth man?

de'andre hunterThe news was as deflating as it was stunning: De’Andre Hunter, ACC Sixth Man of the Year, is out for the season with a broken left wrist.

Hunter, who averaged 10.7 points per game in ACC play in 2017-2018, is #1 Virginia’s most versatile player, getting minutes in the frontcourt and backcourt for coach Tony Bennett, able to guard one through five, equally adept at scoring in the post, from the perimeter and via the dribble drive.

You don’t just replace a guy like Hunter, who was averaging 23 minutes per game off the bench over the past 10 games, with one guy, because that one guy doesn’t exist, not on Virginia’s roster, not on many college rosters.

And the answer isn’t just, give the starters more minutes, because of late Hunter has been effectively a sixth starter, actually getting more floor time than starting center Jack Salt, who has been averaging 17.7 minutes per game over the last 10.

The recent emergence of Mamadi Diakite can give UVA fans hope that the 6’9” redshirt sophomore can soak up some of Hunter’s minutes. Diakite had 10 points and four rebounds in 17 minutes in Virginia’s ACC Tournament wins over Louisville and Clemson, before going scoreless with three rebounds in eight minutes in the title-game win over UNC.

Diakite has averaged 14.7 minutes per game over the last 10, and looking way back to the Dec. 5 loss at West Virginia, he gave the ‘Hoos a season-high 29 minutes that night.

The 5.7 fouls per 40 minutes stat line is a concern with Diakite, who seems to step down from the team bus with two fouls already in the scorebook, but asking the uber-athletic big man to give you another 8-10 minutes is certainly doable.

Isaiah Wilkins could also shoulder some of that load, but you have to wonder about Wilkins’ health, too. The ACC Defensive Player of the Year suffered a lower-back injury in the win over Clemson in January, and took another hard fall on his back in the win over North Carolina Saturday night, to the point that Bennett signaled to him from the bench to ask if he was OK before leaving him in.

Jay Huff is another option, at least on paper, but I don’t see Bennett giving Huff, a talented 7’1” redshirt freshman, meaningful minutes at this stage, given that we haven’t seen Huff run minutes with the first unit since December.

You may see Bennett go with Devon Hall at the four for a few minutes, with Nigel Johnson or Marco Anthony joining Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy in the backcourt. Johnson had his most effective non-Pitt ACC game of the season in the ACC title game, scoring eight points in 10 minutes off the bench.

Anthony, you may remember, had a nice effort in the first win over Louisville, scoring 10 points in 18 minutes off the bench as Johnson was serving the first game of a three-game suspension for an undisclosed violation of team rules, before going silent again, getting five minutes in the win over Florida State and then 14 in the blowout at Pitt.

Most likely what happens here is Bennett shortens the bench to go seven-deep, tries to get extra minutes out of Diakite and Johnson, and rides the starters, using the day off between Friday and Sunday, and if Virginia makes it to Atlanta, the three days off in between the second round and the Sweet 16.

It’s far from ideal, but it’s doable. The talent is there. Diakite has looked good of late, and Johnson looked as good as he has all season in his limited time in the Carolina game.

Next man up.

Story by Chris Graham

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Team of Destiny: Inside Virginia Basketball’s Run to the 2019 National Championship, by Jerry Ratcliffe and Chris Graham, is available for $25.

The book, with additional reporting by Zach Pereles, Scott Ratcliffe and Scott German, will take you from the aftermath of the stunning first-round loss to UMBC in 2018, and how coach Tony Bennett and his team used that loss as the source of strength, through to the ACC regular-season championship, the run to the Final Four, and the thrilling overtime win over Texas Tech to win the 2019 national title, the first in school history.


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