What did you think of Jerome Hunter last February? Be honest. A semi-heralded transfer from Indiana, he was, as the kids (used to?) say, straight up not having a good time. He played in 8 games that month, posting a line of 13/13/2 with 5 turnovers on .222/.143/.667 shooting. That wasn't one game; that was his production in 84 minutes of play. He also threw in 12 fouls for good measure. It was miserable to observe and had to be even worse to experience in the first person.
I mention last February for a couple of reasons. The first is that it is now this February, which is one year after last February. The other is that, in the nadir for team and player that was February 2022, one brave soul started a Twitter account called the Jerome Hunter Fan Club. I went to the mattresses for Jason Carter for two straight years and even I admire this guy or gal's commitment to the bit.
Incredibly, slowly, but inexorably, Jerome set out to put his stamp on this season. In the season opener against a bad Morgan State team, he went for 11/9/2 with 5 of his boards being offensive. He also threw in 4 fouls to round out his line and let everyone know what to expect from him going forward.
After that game, he averaged just over 6 minutes per in the next 5 games, still managing to grab 5 offensive rebounds and commit an incredible 11 fouls. He picked up 11 minutes (and 4 more fouls) against Gonzaga and has only dipped below 10 minutes once since. That was against Georgetown, where he played 9 minutes, put in 4 points and - you guessed it! - picked up 4 fouls.
As the season wore on and it became clear that Sean Miller only trusted two guys off the bench, the question became one of whether or not Jerome would be able to avoid foul trouble long enough to be effective. He had clearly embraced his new role as an energy guy off the bench, but his effectiveness was being hampered by how often he directed that energy into collisions that the officials deemed illegal.
He responded with a 10-game stretch that was exactly what Xavier needed from him. He averaged 19.1 minutes per game and put up a game line of 9.4/4.3/1.2 on .571/.333/.840 shooting. He averaged exactly 2 fouls per game, which still isn't excellent for 19 minutes, but it was tenable for the best bench weapon in the league.
Then Zach Freemantle went down injured. Jerome was going to have to step up from bench weapon to full-time starter with no backup, and he was going to have to do it while replacing the best defensive rebounder in the Big East against the best offensive rebounding team the league has to offer. If that wasn't enough, he was also going to be tasked with guarding Providence's leading scorer and rebounder in Bryce Hopkins.
What he came with was a legendary performance in a game that demanded it. He completely pocketed Hopkins on the defensive end, holding him to 4 points - all on free throws - during the 36 minutes that Hunter was on the floor. After bullying the more heralded player on one end, he outworked him on the other, running down 7 offensive rebounds on his way to a game like of 9/8/1 with just one turnover. Perhaps as remarkably, he did it all while fouling only once. Only severe cramping and some struggles at the free throw line (probably down at least in part to how hard he was working while compiling a career high in minutes) marred his performance. Even then, when he shed the diligently working training staff and hustled back onto the floor to completely erase Hopkins from the final Providence possession, the crowd acknowledged him with the kind of roar usually reserved for game-winning buckets.
In the post-game presser, Sean Miller said that Hunter's toughness and energy were the kind of things you use as examples for future players and future teams. For this year's squad, the present is all that matters. The most important games of the season still lie ahead, and Jerome Hunter - once persona non grata among the Xavier faithful - has established himself as a vital link between where the Muskies are and where they want to go.