MINNEAPOLIS — Monday night’s national championship battle between Virginia and Texas Tech has been billed as a battle of underdogs and top-five defenses.
Both programs have never reached this point in the NCAA tournament. Suffocating opponents and the “defense wins championships” mantra applies to Chris Beard and Tony Bennett and how they prefer to run things.
In a smaller individual subplot, however, Monday’s title game features an intriguing contest on the wing between two potential NBA lottery picks in Virginia’s De’Andre Hunter and Texas Tech’s Jarrett Culver. During a season in which Zion Williamson became the talk of the sport, the glaring lack of one-and-done prospects has been a topic of discussion, once again, during the Final Four. Since Duke and Kentucky both got upset in the Elite Eight, the opportunity to see two lottery-level talents play against each other on the sport’s biggest stage could emerge as the most fascinating storyline to watch for a large casual audience.
“You can tell, when the game’s on the line, [Culver’s] their guy. And it’s similar in our case with De’Andre Hunter,” Virginia assistant coach Brad Soderberg said of the duo. “When you find a guy with size, and a skill set that can play out to the NBA line, all the way to the rim, you have to [play through them].”
“We face a lot of guys in the ACC and [Culver’s] every bit an ACC kind of player that we see. So the respect for him is at a high level.”
Culver and Hunter share many similarities and a few differences. NBC Sports first-team All-Americans during the 2018-19 season, the duo entered college with minimal fanfare as potential pro prospects — only to emerge in the lottery discussion after a few seasons in school. Multi-positional on the defensive end, Culver and Hunter can be disruptive thanks to their length and program’s defense-first mindsets. Hunter gains a slight edge for his individual defensive prowess but Culver is certainly no slouch on that end.
And the duo can also erupt for 20-point outings against quality competition. Culver is the more aggressive and dangerous offensive threat off the dribble whereas Hunter is a more consistent catch-and-shoot perimeter option.
The duo will likely spend some time defending each other on Monday night. The mutual respect between the pair is apparent in how each describes each other’s games.
“I just know that he’s a great player, athletic, can shoot the ball well. I mean, he plays defense,” Culver said of Hunter. “We know a lot about him. But it’s going to be a great matchup for our team to play against him.”
“He’s a great player; he’s a two-way player,” Hunter said of Culver. “He’s a bigger guard and he basically does everything for his team. He’s very versatile.”
Fresh off of Saturday night’s national semifinal victories, both coaching staffs are still figuring the best way to play against each other. Slowing down Culver and Hunter will undoubtedly be a focal point for the Cavaliers and Red Raiders.
But there are also plenty of other talented offensive players on each team to contend with. Texas Tech has received stellar play from senior guard Matt Mooney and sophomore floor-spacer Davide Moretti during the past few weeks. Virginia is always hunting looks for talented perimeter shooters like Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome — potentially the Cavaliers’ go-to offensive options on Monday. There’s a distinct possibility Culver and Hunter spend a healthy amount of the game in individual matchups against other threats.
“There will be different guys guarding each other depending on who is on the floor for us and who is on the floor for them. But I can see those two going against each other. But it’s much bigger than Jarrett and De’Andre,” Virginia associate head coach Jason Williford said.
Two defensive juggernauts battling in a slow-tempo game isn’t the most desirable tussle to watch. So the chance to see two NBA-level talents closing out the season facing each other is the biggest subplot for casual fans to monitor on Monday night. Culver and Hunter have a chance to produce a memorable individual battle before likely turning pro and it could be the saving grace if the national championship turns into a rock fight.