MINNEAPOLIS -- Lost amid an epic Saturday night at the Final Four and grumblings of what's expected to be a low-scoring national title game is a matchup between two top-10 NBA Draft prospects that have stayed under the radar all the way into Monday's championship.
Tony Bennett vs. Chris Beard is the headline matchup, absolutely, as two brilliant tacticians meet at U.S. Bank Stadium in each's first title game. But the matchup between Virginia's De'Andre Hunter and Texas Tech's Jarrett Culver could ripple into late June. Though not nearly as praised as Duke's Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett, Culver and Hunter won't have to wait long for their names to be called in the 2019 NBA Draft.
In an era of one-and-done prospects, Culver and Hunter were lower-tier prospects coming out of high school. Culver was No. 312 in the 247Sports Composite rankings; Hunter was No. 91. Yet as sophomores, they blossomed into stars.
"The hype has always been around the Duke guys all year, but some of the guys that have been consistently great like De'Andre Hunter, like Jarrett Culver, don't get that much praise," Virginia sophomore Jayden Nixon told CBS Sports. "But they know the fruits of their labor are working. Both teams have their top two guys, and the top two teams are in the championship."
Stepping into the role
The story of NBA after one season, the question about how good the Red Raiders could be depended upon how good Culver could be.. An under-the-radar recruit, Culver served as a surprising co-star as a freshman last season in Beard's system. When Texas Tech unexpectedly lost Zhaire Smith to the
Culver heard the noise, the skepticism. He got to work.
"His work ethic is unmatched," said teammate and roommate Malik Ondigo, who came to Texas Tech with Culver in the same recruiting class. "He works harder in the gym than anyone I've been around. I think his work ethic and his love of the game separates him."
Culver's game is classic. He's a playmaker, with a strong handle and great vision, and he combines that with the elite defense that Beard expects from all of his players. His analytics are strong, particularly on the defensive end, where he led the nation in defensive win shares, according to sports-reference.
More than anything, he's adaptable. His role dramatically changed from last season -- when Keenan Evans and Smith carried Tech -- to this one.
"[Jarrett] completely changed his jump shot [last offseason]," Ondigo said. "So his willingness to change things in his game that he's had for his whole life, I mean, he's constantly working on his ball-handling. For him to be able to do that, once he started putting all that together, I thought, 'It's over.' He already has the jump shot, he can play without the ball, he can cut, he's athletic, he's long, he defends, he can rebound at a high rate. Him turning into a playmaker has really expanded his game.
"His ceiling is really high. I think it's some of the highest in the draft, because his work ethic, his ability to see the game. He's a scorer, he wants to score -- Jarrett loves getting his buckets -- but he's also cool being a passer, playing off the ball. His ability to make plays is remarkable."
The 3-and-D maestro
While Culver was polishing his game for a bigger role as a sophomore, Hunter was doing the same. Hunter had a tremendous sophomore season in 2017-18, butwith a broken left wrist. He could have turned pro and likely would have been drafted, perhaps in the first round, but the decision to return -- unfinished business, redemption, all that warm and fuzzy rationale -- was validated and then some with his steady climb up draft boards this season.
"His work ethic is crazy," Virginia junior Braxton Key said. "De'Andre, this summer, he was putting up extra shots, working on catch-and-shoot 3s, on the move, on his dribble, just working on his game every single day. He does it all."
The archetype of a 3-and-D prospect in the dictionary shows Hunter smiling with a basketball in hand (probably). We know the 6-7 wing can defend and shoot -- he was the ACC Defensive Player of the Year, and has been lights out from distance -- but he can also create shots for himself and for others in addition to rebounding. The appeal of him as an NBA player is his ability to switch screens, to be an elite defender, and to stretch the floor.
Unlocking the peak of Hunter's game will come with time as he develops his play-making and his handle and grasps the concepts of the NBA, but the flashes of stardom mixed between top-end production are there.
"He's really good at creating for his teammates, he's an exceptional on-ball defender, his mid-range game is phenomenal," Nixon said. "He's like another Kawhi Leonard, basically."
Kawhi Leonard? Hyperbole? Perhaps. Although the numbers are compelling ....
- Kawhi Leonard, sophomore season at SDSU: 15.5 ppg, 10.6 rpg, 2.5 apg, 29.1% from 3
- De'Andre Hunter, junior season at Virginia: 14.9 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 2.0 apg, 42.0% from 3
Hunter has a little Leonard to his game, but he is his own unique prospect, still largely untapped and blossoming. "He's still just scratching the surface of what he's going to become," said Bennett.
With Hunter's trajectory, it's impossible to predict his ceiling. What is possible, even probable: that a team recognizes his upside and production and makes him a high draft pick. He could be the highest-drafted Virginia player since Ralph Sampson went No. 1 in 1983.
"He's worked extremely hard this past offseason," Nixon said. "Him and Ty [Jerome] worked out two, three times a day every single day. He's just coming into his own, really. From this past summer [to now], he's grown so much as a player, so I can't wait to see what he's going to be like when he gets that experience, that coaching at the NBA level."
What makes Culver and Hunter so unique goes beyond their soft-spoken demeanors and their oddball route to becoming stars in college basketball. The untapped potential is glaring, and when it shines through, when they really have things clicking -- look out.
Culver has shades of his own NBA comparison. "There's no telling, obviously," Parker said, "but how he plays is a lot like M.J., just with his style."
Yes, that's Michael Jordan.
"He studies M.J. a lot," Ondigo added. "He studies Kobe a lot, his favorite player is Jamal Crawford. I feel like the way he plays and with his footwork -- he's not the most athletic guy -- but he uses his size and length and skill to beat people. He's like a taller wing, maybe a more athletic Ryan Anderson, a Paul George-type of player where he just uses his skills to beat you."
Hyperbolic comparisons aside, Culver and Hunter represent the most enticing individual matchup of Monday's national title game. And with a combined 33.5 points per game this season between the two, the unique talents on opposite ends of the court will have a giant say in who wins it all -- and who walks home empty.