- The Gators were already one of Kentucky's primary challengers in next year's SEC race. Now they could be co-favorites.
New blood was already a central theme for Florida’s basketball program next season. The Gators’ loss of three of their top four scorers from a team that reached the NCAA tournament’s second round as a No. 10 seed was set to be countered by the arrival of a top-10 recruiting class headlined by five-star 6'5" wing Scottie Lewis, earning the team early offseason buzz. That dynamic figured to be exciting, as such injections of young talent are, though it carried with it the typical caveats of the unknown.
Now Florida has landed the biggest known quantity on the market. On Wednesday night Kerry Blackshear Jr., a grad-transfer center from Virginia Tech, announced on his Instagram that he will be playing his final season of college hoops in Gainesville, some 100-plus miles north of his hometown of Orlando. Blackshear is a 6'10", 250-pound bruiser who averaged 14.9 points and 7.5 rebounds for the Hokies last season while ranking in the ACC’s top 11 during league play in offensive rating, usage, true shooting percentage, offensive and defensive rebounding rate, free-throw percentage and fouls drawn per 40 minutes. The last time he suited up was in Virginia Tech’s razor-thin second-round NCAA tournament loss to Duke, where he finished with 18 points, 16 rebounds and five assists.
So ends one of the summer’s most interesting and ardent recruiting battles. Blackshear’s entry into the transfer portal was not a total shock after his coach, Buzz Williams, departed Blacksburg to take over at Texas A&M, but his transferring was not exactly a lock. Blackshear also entered his name into the NBA’s draft pool before withdrawing in May, and in April his father told The Roanoke Times, “Virginia Tech is still at the top of his list. He just wants to weigh all his options.”
And options he had. Michigan State fans began openly swooning about the fantasy of Blackshear replacing Nick Ward on a team already expected to be near the top of the polls. North Carolina supporters saw an heir to Luke Maye. Big Blue Nation hoped Reid Travis’s success at Kentucky last season would spur John Calipari to land another grad transfer looking to polish his game for NBA scouts. Texas A&M was a contender thanks to Williams. Arkansas landed a visit. Tennessee and Memphis were reportedly in the picture at various times.
But it was Florida and coach Mike White, to whom Blackshear took his first visit in early June, that landed the big man. His fit on the Gators appears to be a good one. The return of sophomores-to-be Andrew Nembhard (second in the SEC in assist rate as a freshman) and Noah Locke (37.9% from three) and the arrival of Lewis figure to make their backcourt a strength, which should make for a mutually beneficial pairing with Blackshear, a post anchor who will reliably draw attention away from the perimeter weapons, as they will in turn do for him. Even without a Blackshear-level producer inside last season, as noted by Gator Country, more than a third of Nembhard’s assists as a freshman were to Florida’s centers. Here again Blackshear is capable of returning the favor: His assist rate last season ranked 19th in the ACC, a near-aberrational level of productivity for a center that speaks to the IQ of his game and his ability to create and identify opportunities for teammates.
Blackshear’s arrival adds intrigue to the top of the SEC, which had previously projected to have a substantial gap between Kentucky and the rest of the field as Tennessee, Auburn and LSU deal with significant and difficult-to-replace departures from last season’s teams. A more well-rounded (and more experienced) Florida team now stands as the Wildcats’ most likely challenger for the conference title and, depending on how successfully White configures his new lineup, could give the SEC a second team with legitimate Final Four aspirations.
Of course, we are months away from even the first ball being tipped. But what’s known now is clear: Florida just landed an impact player, and is all the more dangerous for it.