NBA-Bound De'Andre Hunter & Jarrett Culver Play For NCAA Championship

MINNEAPOLIS — Virginia's De'Andre Hunter and Texas Tech's Jarrett Culver and are both likely to hear their names called by NBA commissioner Adam Silver during the NBA Draft on June 20 in Brooklyn.

The 6-foot-8 Hunter is the projected No. 5 pick per ESPN.com, while the 6-6 Culver is projected at No. 7.

Before they head to the pros, they have one more chance to showcase themselves in the NCAA championship here on Monday night.

"They're on the biggest stage, they have it all to themselves, and they both had outstanding years and they're lottery picks," one NBA scout said of the pair. "It couldn't have worked out better."

With Duke and Kentucky having been eliminated in the Elite Eight, there isn't single one-and-done player here. That leaves Culver, a sophomore, and Hunter, a redshirt sophomore, as the highest-profile players in tonight’s game.

But first things first: A chance to head to the pros with an NCAA championship in hand.

"It’s unbelievable," Culver said Sunday. "It’s just a special feeling, it’s a feeling that I never thought that I would’ve felt before. Just growing up in Lubbock, I never would’ve thought that Texas Tech would be playing for a national championship, and now that I’m a part of it just means everything to me and Lubbock."

Although he's from Lubbock, Culver actually grew up a University of Texas fan.

“I came up rooting for Texas, [Tech’s] rival, so that’s pretty funny," he said. "My family, my dad was a big Texas fan growing up so we all kind of just liked Texas. We’d go to school, elementary, and everybody had their Tech shirts on, we’d have our Texas shirts on. It was competitive. But once I got recruited by Texas Tech, I didn’t think that would go into the factor in the school I decided. I just wanted to pray about it, talk to my family, and decide that school and what was the best fit for me."

Culver could have left for the NBA after last season, but he chose to stay one more year and it has benefited him.

“I mean, credit to my coaching staff and my teammates, they helped me get in the gym every day, they brought the best out of me every day," he said. "After last year, they wanted me to get better, and I wanted to get better as well, so I got to work."

In the national semifinal win over Michigan State, Culver struggled early, scoring just one point in the first half before taking over late and finishing with 10 points in the win.

"Yeah I knew I wasn’t scoring, but there’s always other ways to affect a game," he said. "I know it’s one of my roles to score on this team, but I can also do other things and that’s one of my roles too. Defense is a big part of that, so every night I come out and I try to be one of the best defensive players on the floor, and that’s what I tried to do [Saturday] night."

As for Hunter, the redshirt sophomore, he and his teammates have the chance to complete an almost storybook turnaround. A year after becoming the first No. 1 seed in history to lose to a 16 in the first round, they are now 40 minutes from an NCAA championship.

“There may be some nerves again and I’m sure there will be because it’s the national championship game," Hunter said. "There will be some nerves, we’re going to have some jitters, but when it comes to the game we are just going to play how we usually do."

Like Culver, Hunter didn't start out dominating against Auburn but later flashed his talent to help the Cavaliers to their dramatic 63-62 win capped off by Kyle Guy's three straight free throws. Hunter finished with 14 points and five rebounds in the game.

Hunter chose to redshirt during the 2016-17 season at Virginia, which has helped his development long-term.

“Me and Coach [Tony] Bennett had a meeting and we discussed that year I was probably not going to get much playing time and he felt like he didn’t want me to waste that year," Hunter said. "I agreed with that and it was hard at first, but I just used that season to work on my game and get stronger in the weight room.

Like Culver, Hunter likely would have been a first-round pick a year ago, but opted to return to school. And Bennett is glad he did.

"De'Andre's improved so much," Bennett said. "He's just scratching the surface. He redshirted his first year. Malcolm Brogdon redshirted with us. He started out his first year playing and then really took off and has gotten better and better. I think that's why we're in this spot, because our guys, they have improved collectively and individually, and obviously they responded to what happened last year."

Now both guys have the opportunity to close out their college careers by cutting down the nets on Monday night.


Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who runs ZAGSBLOG.com and contributes to The New York Times. Follow Adam on Twitter.

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