If you base what Kerry Blackshear Jr. has done this year due to some fairly unrealistic expectations prior to the start of the basketball season, then you’re disappointed. You expected more, maybe 20 points and 10 rebounds a game. You expected the Gators to be a top ten team all season that would challenge for the SEC and NCAA championships. If you bought the hype, then Blackshear’s 13.2 points and 7.5 rebounds per game are underwhelming and a reason the Gators are 19-11 (11-6 in SEC play) and on the eight or nine line for just about every reputable bracketologist.
“He came in with this just crazy, crazy expectation that he’s going to be Shaquille O’Neal, I think, to the outside world,” Florida coach Mike White said prior to the Gators taking to the practice floor to tune up for Saturday’s encounter at the O-Dome with SEC regular season champ, 6th-ranked Kentucky (24-6, 14-3 SEC). “He’s had a great year.”
Blackshear hasn’t been Shaq, especially if you look at things from a statistical standpoint, but what he does goes far beyond what you’ll see in the box scores. Without him, the Gators would be nowhere near where they are today, in a position to finish in sole possession of second place in the SEC regular season and a realistic chance to improve to the six or seven line in the NCAA brackets.
White was asked Friday where he thought the Gators would be without Blackshear. “In a world of hurt,” he responded without a nano-second of hesitation. On a roster so fuzzy-faced that only eight teams in the entire country are younger, Blackshear has been a steadying force on and off the court.
When the Gators take the court, White has 10 scholarship players available. Blackshear is a grad transfer from Virginia Tech and the old man on the team. Then there is Dontay Bassett, a fourth-year junior who is only now rounding into shape to provide a few minutes per game in what has been an injury plagued season. After that the Gators have three sophomores (Andrew Nembhard, Keyontae Johnson and Noah Locke) and five freshmen. (Scottie Lewis, Tre Mann, Omar Payne, Ques Glover and Jason Jitoboh).
With a roster that young peaks and valleys are to be expected. The hope is that each peak will be a little bit higher and each valley not quite as low as the last one. Three or so weeks ago, the Gators were thought to be on the NCAA Tournament bubble and probably NIT-bound. Now they’re starting to play with much more toughness and consistency.
Unquestionably, Blackshear has had plenty to do with the resurgence. He has games when he gets his points – he had 18 at Kentucky and 20 at Tennessee – but he’s also had games like the wins over LSU and Georgia that he didn’t have to score much to have an effective presence. Blackshear scored only eight points in each of those games, but he was so good on the defensive interior that the Gators were able to hold both LSU (66) and Georgia (54) to season-low totals.
That’s not to say his offensive presence wasn’t felt. It’s just that he didn’t have to score to make it known. He only had one assist in the LSU game, but his passes out of double-teams in the low blocks were the start of passing sequences that led to open shots. There were only two assists against Georgia, but when Georgia double-teamed, it left open people and Blackshear found them. The second or third pass found open shooters.
“Talk about playing through a guy, he catches the ball everywhere on the floor,” White said. “The more he touches it the better we are. Defensively, he’s been an anchor.
“From a consistency, toughness, intelligence, focus standpoint, scouting report preparation standpoint he’s the guy on our team.”
Although neither White nor Blackshear are hung up on stats, White is well aware that Blackshear’s numbers could be a lot better.
“He’s been open a lot when he hasn’t gotten it,” White admitted.
Why he doesn’t get it has everything to do with ball movement. For much of the season the Gators weren’t one of the better passing teams in the SEC, but that has gotten better in recent weeks and that does have a lot to do with Blackshear.
Johnson, in particular, has benefitted from Blackshear attracting so much attention down in the low blocks. When Johnson sees opponents trying to double up on Blackshear, he tries to find open space or cut to the basket, knowing he might get the ball back in a good scoring position. The good ball movement out of the post helps account for Johnson’s improvement as a scorer (team-leading 14.1 per game). If Johnson makes All-SEC – highly likely – it will have plenty to do with Blackshear’s presence on the floor.
“When teams try to fire into the post and I cut back door he’s a great passer, so he helps look for other teammates,” Johnson said. “He’s pass-first and he thinks about scoring second so I feel like that helps me and then he spaces the floor for us and hits wide-open shots when we need him to.”
If the Gators turn the tables on Kentucky Saturday – the Gators lost to UK at Rupp, 65-59, a couple of weeks ago – they will have the double-bye at the SEC Tournament, which means they don’t play until the quarter-finals on Friday. Whether it’s as SEC champs or simply one of the four teams that earn the double-bye, the Gators are poised for a good run in March. They’ve been playing their best basketball of the season the last several games, particularly obvious in the defensive stats. Even the two games UF lost – roadies at Kentucky and Tennessee – the Gators played well enough defensively to win the game (UK scored 65, UT scored 63).
Blackshear knows that if the Gators do their part defensively, they should have a good chance to pull off the win that will ensure at least a tie for second. For one thing, UF always shoots better in the friendly confines of the O-Dome, but for the Gators to play well and have a chance to win Saturday, it will start with defense that Blackshear knows can be even better than what the team has shown the last three weeks. .
“I think we’re just building toward getting better,” he said. “I think that’s been the focus. Even in the games where we’ve come out pretty solid on defense, we realize there are a lot of plays we could get back so we could be even better. If we can maintain that mindset, I think we’ll keep getting better on defense. When our defense is better, I think the offense is better as well.”
White appreciates the selfless attitude of his big guy and knows the Gators are prepped for a good finish to the season in the tournaments thanks to his play.
“He’s helped this team, put us in a position where we’re pretty competitive,” White said. “We’ve got a chance to finish strong. If he doesn’t come to Florida, it could’ve been a tough year.”