John Clay

The Kerry Blackshear Jr. Derby: Breaking down Kentucky’s competition

These days, Kentucky basketball hangs on one question.

Are the Cats getting Kerry Blackshear Jr.?

Maybe. Maybe not. The last big free agent on the wildly popular collegiate free agent market known as graduate transfers, the former Virginia Tech center is still out shopping. He’s visited Florida and Arkansas. He is reportedly visiting Tennessee and Kentucky. He may or may not be considering a return to Virginia Tech or a reunion with his old coach at Texas A&M.

Only Blackshear knows his timetable. Few outside of Blackshear know what he’s thinking. The 6-foot-10 forward declared for the NBA Draft, only to withdraw and enter the transfer portal. The program fortunate enough to acquire his services leaps up the 2019-20 pre-season expectations ladder. Those that do not will lament the (big) one who got away.

With that in mind, here’s a quick look at the contenders:

Florida: The Gators are the close-to-home option. Blackshear is from nearby Orlando, roughly two hours from Gainesville. Coach Mike White also boasts a young but intriguing roster. His recruiting class, led by Scottie Lewis (ranked seventh nationally) and Tre Mann (20th), sits No. 7 on the 247Sports class of 2019 list. Andrew Nembhard, Noah Locke and Keyontae Johnson are back for their sophomore seasons. Blackshear would provide size, talent and a senior presence.

Arkansas: New coach Eric Musselman has two things in his favor. He has a pro basketball background, having held a pair of NBA head coaching jobs. And he has already built one program through transfers. That was Nevada, starring the Martin twins (Cody and Caleb) from North Carolina State. Musselman is headed for a replication with the Razorbacks. He already has former SMU guard Jimmy Whitt, Jr. and former UNC Wilmington forward Jeantal Cylla. He thought he had Isaiah Moss, until the former Iowa guard de-committed and signed with Kansas. Blackshear would make up for that late miss. And then some.

Tennessee: Technically, the Vols don’t have an open scholarship. For Blackshear, however, Rick Barnes will figure something out. Tennessee lost front-court starters Kyle Alexander, Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield off last year’s team. Uros Plavsic transferred in from Arizona State, but the 7-foot-1 center is awaiting his immediate eligibility appeal. At Tennessee, Blackshear would definitely be Barnes’ go-to guy. Is that enough?

Virginia Tech: The Hokies have a new coach in Mike Young. Name sound familiar? He led Wofford to the NCAA Tournament’s round of 32 last year before being bounced by Kentucky. Young has Alabama State big man Brandon Johnson on board as a grad transfer. Everything else is up in the air. Caveat: Blackshear knows Blacksburg. “Virginia Tech coaches are confident they have a really good shot,” Chris Arvin of VT Scoop told 247Sports’ Chris Fisher. “He still has really good friends on the team and everything will run though him.”

Texas A&M: Would it be bad form for Blackshear to follow former Virginia Tech coach Buzz Williams to College Station? Probably, but such scenarios have played out before. This one appears unlikely, however. There hasn’t been much buzz about Buzz bagging his former star. Just 14-18 last season, the Aggies are in rebuild mode. Consensus claims Blackshear would lean more toward an already-winning program than one trying to become a winning program.

Kentucky: John Calipari said last week he’s happy with the current players on his roster. He also said he’d be happy to welcome one more. Blackshear would be the plus-one. He would lift a frontcourt already celebrating the return of EJ Montgomery and Nick Richards. Without Blackshear, Kentucky is a national championship contender next season. With him, Kentucky would be the national championship favorite next season. Question: Does he want the big stage?

We could find out by the end of next week. Or we could find out the day before college classes begin. Until then, the answer is pure speculation. And hope.

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