Adding Kerry Blackshear a game-changer for Mike White and Florida basketball
Mike White has always had immense shoes to fill, and he’s done an admirable job trying to maintain the standard set by legendary Billy Donovan, who helped build Florida into a national brand in college basketball, guiding the program to 6 SEC championships, 2 national championships and 4 Final Fours. In the past decade alone, Florida reached 5 Elite 8s (1 by White’s staff, in 2016-17). Among SEC programs, only Arkansas, LSU and Kentucky have reached that many (and in Kentucky’s case, many more) in their entire program histories. In other words, when you talk about basketball culture in the SEC, Florida might have been late to the party, but from a results standpoint, the Gators play second-fiddle only to Kentucky.
Florida has won plenty under White, collecting 20 or more wins in each of his first 4 seasons and reaching an Elite 8. This past season, Florida became 1 of only 10 programs nationally, and 1 of only 2 SEC programs (Kentucky) to win an NCAA Tournament game for the 3rd consecutive season. During White’s tenure, Kentucky is the only SEC program with more NCAA Tournament victories.
Donovan built Florida’s winning culture with tenacious defense, a standard White has maintained at Florida, finishing among the nation’s Top 25 defenses every season and among the nation’s top 15 3 times. But as in football, defense alone doesn’t satisfy Florida’s fan base.
However, White’s offenses at Florida, until last year largely predicated on dribble-drive principles, have finished in the Top 25 in offensive efficiency only once in his tenure (2016-17). These struggles have alienated some fans, and even though last season’s team played a game to advance to the Sweet 16, last year’s up and down season frustrated many in Gainesville.
Enter Kerry Blackshear.
Quietly, and despite a media narrative that had Florida eliminated from the process and Blackshear nearly committed to SEC rivals Kentucky, Arkansas or Tennessee over the past 2 weeks, White and the Florida staff relentlessly pursued and Wednesday landed the nation’s most coveted graduate transfer. Now the Gators get to reap the rewards of a hard-fought recruiting victory. Put plainly, Blackshear is a game-changer of a get for the Gators next season.
Blackshear provides elite post offense to a Gators program that has been starved for post scoring the prior two seasons.
At 6-10, 250 pounds, Blackshear is a force on post-ups, Blackshear averaged a tremendous 52.1% on shots in the block last year despite high volume in the ACC, among the nation’s best basketball conferences. Blackshear is also an elite offensive rebounder, finishing 39th nationally in offensive rebound percentage a season ago, a figure that helped him collect 9 double-doubles last year, including one in Virginia Tech’s heartbreaking Sweet 16 defeat to Duke. Blackshear is also terrific in the pick and roll, just the type of soft-hand, polished offensive big that White’s offense has lacked.
Florida’s offense was very set reliant in 2018-19, and often would go deep into the shot clock before settling for a less-efficient jump shot. A big reason for this was a lack of options on the block, and Blackshear gives the Gators one of the best late shot clock players in America, having averaged an excellent 49% on 77 shots taken with less than 5 seconds on the shot clock in 2018-19. Contrast that with KeVaughn Allen’s 31.6% percentage on his team-high 76 attempts with less than 5 seconds on the shot clock and you get an idea of how Florida’s late offense upgrades thanks to Blackshear.
Blackshear also corrects a problem Florida had with roster balance.
Of 7 players signed in White’s 2016 and 2017 classes, only 3 remain (Dontay Bassett, Gorjok Gak and Isaiah Stokes), an unusual level of attrition in any circumstance and even more troubling when you consider that to date, only Bassett has been a consistent contributor. Those “empty” classes contributed heavily to a lack of roster balance, with the Gators lacking the number of diverse frontcourt players and wings necessary to compete at the higher echelons of the sport last season.
Relentless recruiting helped Florida upgrade its talent last season, led by All-SEC freshmen Andrew Nembhard and forward Keyontae Johnson, who by March could stake a claim as perhaps Florida’s most important player. Those two keyed Florida’s SEC Tournament semifinals run that locked down an at-large berth and fueled a win over senior-laden Nevada in the NCAA Tournament. White bolstered this group by signing Florida’s best recruiting class in more than a decade this spring, led by two McDonald’s All Americans, Scottie Lewis and Tre Mann.
Suddenly, a Florida roster with zero 5-star players that had gone to the Elite 8 had become a roster with 3 5-star players headed into White’s fifth season.
Despite this promise, Florida has failed to gain must traction nationally for next season due to lingering questions about their frontcourt. Until now.
Blackshear solves that riddle by giving the Gators a diverse frontcourt guy who will start at the 5 but offer minutes at the 4, giving the talented Johnson the opportunity to play some at the 3 or grab additional rest. Blackshear also means that players Florida would have needed to rely on next season as key contributors instead become nice complementary pieces. Dontay Bassett’s high-motor for 10-minute spurts could be a terrific wrinkle in the grind of league play, and Stokes’s promising offensive skill set is a nice commodity to have off the bench in spurts.
For Nembhard, one of the best passers in college basketball, the addition of Blackshear could be transformative.
Nembhard averaged nearly 6 assists a game last season as a freshman, finishing 46th nationally in assist rate. Of those helpers, only 34% went to big men. A skilled frontcourt piece like Blackshear should increase those passing opportunities- and the amount of times they result in baskets — immensely, helping Nembhard take a huge leap as a sophomore.
Blackshear is also a good passer, which should benefit Florida’s various quality 3-point shooters, led by Noah Locke (38%), Johnson (48% on corner 3s) and newcomers Mann and rangy guard Ques Glover.
Finally, Blackshear provides a youthful locker room with a senior leader, filling the leadership vacuum left behind by Florida’s three graduating seniors. Blackshear is battle-tested, having weathered the gauntlet of the ACC for 3 years. He has played at Cameron Indoor and the Dean Dome in Chapel Hill, so there won’t be an SEC venue or any other arena that phases him. It’s a piece Florida was very much missing from a team that had plenty of promise on paper but no proven leadership.
All told, Blackshear gives White and the Gators the final piece needed to not only compete with always loaded Kentucky for the SEC Championship, but to play deep in the NCAA Tournament as well. It’s the type of recruiting win that should silence a too-loud minority of White doubters in Gainesville, and it’s one that gives SEC basketball 2 national championship contenders and puts the fun back in heavyweight fights between Florida and Kentucky, just like old times.
Give White and his staff credit. They had an immense need and went out and seized the chance to address it.
Now the fun part starts.