Calipari says 2019 will be a breakout year for returning players
The recruiting travels of top-ranked graduate transfer Kerry Blackshear Jr. are finished, and he won’t be playing his final season of college basketball at Kentucky.
Blackshear — a 6-foot-10, 250-pound post player from Orlando — has committed to Florida, one of several Southeastern Conference schools he visited over the past few weeks.
The former Virginia Tech star also took recruiting trips to Kentucky, Tennessee and Arkansas, but he decided Wednesday night to use his final year to play for the Gators, who could be among the nation’s top teams next season with his addition.
Florida will also bring in McDonald’s All-Americans Scottie Lewis and Tre Mann — key members of the No. 7-ranked recruiting class nationally — to go along with returning players such as Andrew Nembhard, Keyontae Johnson and Noah Locke.
Blackshear averaged 14.9 points and 7.5 rebounds per game at Virginia Tech this past season. He missed the 2016-17 campaign — what would have been his sophomore year — with an injury, and that put him on the path to graduate this spring with one season of immediate eligibility remaining. ESPN ranked him as the No. 1 graduate transfer in the country this offseason.
Blackshear’s decision leaves Kentucky with a frontcourt that’s high on potential but unproven at the top level of college basketball.
UK will return two former McDonald’s All-Americans — Nick Richards and EJ Montgomery — who played supporting roles off the bench on last season’s team, and the Wildcats earlier added a commitment from former Bucknell star Nate Sestina, who averaged 15.8 points and 8.5 rebounds per game for the Patriot League program last season and is the No. 2 grad transfer behind Blackshear in ESPN’s rankings.
At his media availability Saturday morning, UK Coach John Calipari seemed to downplay the need to add the transfer to next season’s roster.
“We’re good. We’re good one way or another,” he said. “If we add, fine. If we don’t, I’m good. You have stuff that happens last minute and things that are going, but our kids — I look at our group that we have and I’m really pleased.”
Richards likely benefits the most from Blackshear’s decision.
The 6-foot-11 center has shown flashes of the five-star talent that brought him to Kentucky, but he was relegated to a bench role as a sophomore last season, averaging 4.0 points, 3.3 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in 12.1 minutes per game.
Richards played a total of just five minutes over UK’s final two games in the Midwest Regional of the NCAA Tournament, including just 44 seconds in the overtime loss to Auburn.
In a news release announcing his return to Kentucky earlier this spring, John Calipari expressed optimism for the 21-year-old big man’s future.
“I’m excited to continue to coach Nick because I know how special he can be,” he said. “I’ve told him, ‘If you come back, I’m expecting you to be one of the best big men in the country.’
“There’s no reason he can’t be. There’s nothing that Nick hasn’t seen at this point, and he knows what my expectations are for him in his junior season. I want him to dominate the game and affect it on every single possession.”
Blackshear’s decision also likely puts more of the offensive load for next season on Montgomery, who averaged just 3.8 points in 15.1 minutes per game as a freshman — and scored a total of two points in 21 minutes of court time over the Cats’ final two NCAA Tournament games — but came to UK billed as a unique offensive talent with tremendous long-term potential as a versatile scorer.
Kentucky still has three open scholarships for next season, but the Cats might not fill any of those spots.
UK has been linked to a few 2020 recruits who have been considering reclassification to 2019, including five-star center N’Faly Dante, who is expected in Lexington for a recruiting visit this week. Dante — a 7-footer — is the No. 11 overall player in the 2020 class, and he would provide an immediate boost to UK’s frontcourt should he reclassify and commit to the Cats, though he has said he intends to stay in the 2020 class.
UK’s current players are already on campus, enrolled in classes, and going through summer workouts.