Friday, 05 April 2019 20:04

"MATTer of Opinion" Sports Column: Best player in the Final Four

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The Final Four begins Saturday, but before we got to that point, a lot of really talented players destined to go pro had already been knocked out of the tournament. We're left now with Virginia, Michigan State, Texas Tech and Auburn — and unless you're a fan of those particular teams, you may be asking yourself, "Who's the best player left in March Madness?"

The answer is De'Andre Hunter.

Hunter was a top-100 recruit as a high school senior, Pennsylvania's Player of the Year and recipient of numerous scholarship offers. He chose Virginia, assuming — as most high-level recruits do — that he would make an immediate impact.

Cavs coach Tony Bennett had other plans.

Hunter suffered a sprained ankle near the start of the 2016-17 season. Even if he had been healthy, Bennett couldn't promise much playing time based on the roster makeup. A decision was made to redshirt Hunter, who was less than thrilled with the plan.

Hunter has become one of the most versatile players in college basketball, a likely NBA lottery pick this spring and an integral part of Virginia's first Final Four team since 1984.

From redshirt to sixth man to lottery pick in three years is an unusual path, but Hunter is not a typical player. He was named third-team All-America by several publications, as well as the ACC Defensive Player of the Year. His versatility is reflected in his statistics. He led Virginia in scoring, was second in rebounding, third in blocks and fourth in assists while shooting 44.6 percent from three-point range.

He ranked third in the ACC in field-goal percentage and seventh in free-throw percentage, and he's one of the best defensive players in the nation.

He'll be perhaps the toughest match-up for Auburn in Saturday's first Final Four semifinal at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. Hunter doesn't have a set position. At 6-7 and 225 pounds, he's listed as a guard, but he is as comfortable playing on the perimeter as he is posting up smaller defenders.

On defense, Hunter guards every position from point guard to power forward. He occasionally gets matched up on a center. 

He didn't start a single game last season, coming off the bench as the sixth man, yet there was chatter in NBA circles that he still could've been a first-round pick. Any temptation of leaving school basically ended when Hunter suffered a broken wrist in the ACC Tournament. The injury meant he watched Virginia's historic loss to No. 16 seed Maryland-Baltimore County from the sideline.

But what matters is his impact on the team this season. He's a unique player and a difference maker, and the Cavaliers will need Hunter's best at both ends to win two games at the Final Four.