March 15, 2018
CHARLOTTE, N.C.– Of the 68 teams that made the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, at least 30 will have been eliminated by the time Virginia, the No. 1 overall seed, takes the court Friday night at Spectrum Center.
At approximately 9:20, UVA (31-2), the South Region’s top seed, meets No. 16 seed UMBC (24-10), which won the America East tournament on a last-second 3-pointer by graduate student Jairus Lyles.
Virginia captured its conference tournament, too, thanks in no small part to redshirt freshman De’Andre Hunter‘s performance against North Carolina in the ACC championship game at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York.
A 6-7 redshirt freshman from Philadelphia, Hunter won’t play for the Wahoos again this season. He’ll miss the NCAA tournament with a broken left wrist, an injury he suffered in the ACC semifinals against Clemson.
“I feel for him,” said sophomore guard Ty Jerome, one of Hunter’s closest friends on the team. “He’s a big piece for us, but before I’m worried about us, I’m worried about him and how he’s doing, because to sit out this time of year is super hard.”
Hunter, the ACC Sixth Man of the Year, averaged 10.8 points and 4.4 rebounds in UVA’s 18 regular-season conference games.
“He had a heck of a year,” head coach Tony Bennett said. “I thought he really developed and helped us so much with his versatility, offensively and defensively … But you can’t control the timing [of injuries]. These things happen. I think there’s enough [talent left in UVA’s locker room], and of course, as the old saying goes, next man up.”
As the top-ranked `Hoos practiced Thursday afternoon at Spectrum Center, Hunter stood on the side of the court in sweats.
His teammates’ message to him after he was ruled out of the NCAAs?
“They just told me to keep my head up,” Hunter said. “Honestly, there’s nothing I can do about it, so I just have to cheer these guys on and be positive and encourage them for the rest of the games.”
Hunter is “a big loss, but we have all the pieces we need in this room,” Jerome said. “It’s next man up. That’s what it has to be. He’s one of our most talented players, if not our most talented player, but he’ll be supporting us, and now everybody has to just come together and keep being who we are.”
The Cavaliers swept the ACC’s regular-season and tournament titles for the second time in five seasons. What’s made his ninth team at UVA so successful, Bennett noted Thursday, is that “different guys at different times” have made major contributions.
“You can’t put your finger on one guy,” Bennett said.
Among the players whose roles are likely to grow in Hunter’s absence is Mamadi Diakite. A 6-9 redshirt sophomore who’s averaging 5.3 points and 3.0 rebounds per game, Diakite might be the Cavaliers’ most athletic player, but he’s been prone to foul trouble.
He’s been called for 72 fouls in his 508 minutes this season. Only one Cavalier has been whistled more often: Jerome, who has 75 fouls in 1,007 minutes.
“That’s one of the biggest factors for me in order to stay in the game,” Diakite said. “I need to make sure that I’m smart when I’m playing.”
The other keys for him, Diakite said, are first to “play defense, because it’s all about the defense. And the second part is, be more consistent offensively. I know that I’m able to score down there on the low post, so I’ll do my best to ask for the ball and get to the basket and make all the plays we need in order to win.”
With Hunter sidelined, each of the other seven will be asked to do a little more. What, exactly, that will mean for him, Johnson is not sure. “But if my name is called, I’m going to be ready,” he said. “It’s whatever’s best for the team, and I think we’re all taking that same mentality into it.”
The `Hoos will miss Hunter, Wilkins said, and “I’d like for him to be able to play. But at the same time, [opponents aren’t] going to care that he’s hurt. At this point you got to step up, next man up, and be ready to play.”
TIES THAT BIND: UMBC’s second-year head coach, Ryan Odom, is a former UVA ball boy who spent part of his childhood in Charlottesville. His father, Dave Odom, was one of Virginia head coach Terry Holland’s assistant coaches.
“Just a special time in our lives,” Ryan Odom recalled Thursday. “We moved there [when] I’d say I was in third grade, something like that. Stayed there, you know until about 10th grade,” when Dave Odom left UVA to become head coach at Wake Forest.
A Hampden-Sydney College graduate, Ryan Odom said he remembers being “around so many highly successful people [at UVA], and everything started with Coach Holland and how he created that family atmosphere around his program. … You think about Coach Holland and all of his assistants that he had that have all been successful in their own way and gone out and done amazing things, [and] the players that have gone on to be successful in life. I just feel very blessed to have been a part of it.”
The hero of UMBC’s victory over Vermont in the America East championship game, Lyles, is the son of UVA alumni. His father, Lester Lyles, played football for the Cavaliers.
Jairus Lyles, a DeMatha Catholic High graduate, began his college career at VCU and then transferred to Robert Morris before landing at UMBC. The 6-2 Lyles averages 20.2 points per game.
“Of course it will go down in history and we’ll relive that moment forever,” Lyles said of his game-winning 3-pointer, “but we definitely moved past it because we know we got to play Virginia on Friday, not Vermont. It’s Virginia.”
The Cavaliers lead the nation in scoring defense (53.4), and Lyles knows nothing is likely to come easy for him Friday night.
“I fully expect them to try to take me out of the game,” he said. “I’ve got to get my teammates involved and do a great job of moving the ball and making them chase us.”
SAFETY FIRST: X-rays taken on Hunter’s left wrist after the Clemson game were negative, Bennett said, but an MRI taken Monday after the team returned to Charlottesville revealed the fracture, which will require surgery.
As head coach, Bennett said, his job “with these young men is to protect them. And he has such a nice future. I think De’Andre would have tried to play [in the NCAAs], but long-term that’s not the wise thing. It’s to get this taken care of and do it the right way and give him the best chance for a full recovery, which is certainly what we expect.”
ELITE GROUP: The list of players who have been to five NCAA tournaments is a small one, and it includes Hall, a 6-5 guard who redshirted at UVA in 2013-14.
“I think it just speaks to the success of this program,” Hall said. “It’s been a journey for me, it’s been special.”
A second-team all-conference selection this season, Hall also was named to the ACC’s all-defensive team. He’s started 87 consecutive games.
PLAY IT AGAIN: For Johnson, who transferred to UVA last summer after graduating from Rutgers, this is his second trip to the NCAA tourney. His first came during his freshman year at Kansas State, where he played for two seasons before transferring to Rutgers.
“I remember our draw was Kentucky, first game,” Johnson said Thursday. “We knew it was going to be a tough game. They had all the star power and all of that. We came out and we played a hard game and it was a good game, but unfortunately we came up short.
“It was a pretty quick stay. We only had that one game, so I’ll try to make it a little longer this time.”
Johnson could face his former team this weekend. The UVA-UMBC winner will take on Creighton or Kansas State in the second round Sunday.
“That was definitely something I wasn’t expecting,” Johnson said of K-State’s presence in Charlotte.
NATIONAL PRIDE: A native of Guinea, Diakite said residents of his country follow the NCAA tournament from afar.
“Sometimes I see on Facebook people cheering for me and telling me they’re proud of me and the country is behind me, looking at me,” Diakite said. “So I think that’s one of the motivations to make me want to play hard for this team.”
Diakite came to the United States from Africa in January 2014 and enrolled at Blue Ridge School near Charlottesville.
READY TO ROLL: An illness limited Wilkins to five minutes in Virginia’s two NCAA tournament games last season. A year later, he’s in a much better place.
“I eat more vegetables,” Wilkins said Thursday, eliciting laughter during the Cavaliers’ press conference. “That’s it. That’s all I got for you. I’m healthy this year.”
A 6-7 forward from the Atlanta area, Wilkins was named the ACC’s defensive player of the year this month.
LOCKED-IN: Hall said the Cavaliers know that on “any given day we don’t come out to play, we can be beat. I think that we have that mindset of knowing we have to fight, be continuous and be relentless and own every possession. It definitely helps us keep that underdog mentality.”
Jerome said: “We know every game, no matter if we’re favored or not favored, we have to out-hustle our opponent. So that’s where our chip comes from: just knowing what we do and knowing who we are and how we have to play to win.”