By Mychal Hunter
Since I started ACCBR in September of 2017 few players have been the topic of my weekly podcast more often than Virginia Tech’s Kerry Blackshear Jr. I often talk about how good the Hokies would be if the versatile 6’10 big man could simply stay on the floor. As we all know, foul trouble has plagued Blackshear his entire career.
As a freshman he averaged 5.8 fouls per 40 minutes and was disqualified due to fouls in five games despite averaging just 19.2 minutes per game. He improved during his sophomore campaign, averaging “only” 4.9 fouls per 40 in 25.2 minutes per game, but was still disqualified seven times. Over his three years in Blacksburg, the Hokies are 7-11 when he fouls out of the game, which is actually better than I anticipated.
VPI came into this season with huge aspirations. Justin Robinson was back and would later become the all-time leading assist man in the history of the school. Chris Clarke, Ahmed Hill and Nickeil Alexander-Walker all returned and Coach Buzz Williams was bringing in another nice wing in 6’7 Landers Nolley.
Nolley became the topic of an NCAA inquiry and Clarke broke team rules prior to the season, both never played a game and won’t return until 2019-20. The Hokies immediately got very thin depth-wise.
In the first game of the season against Gardner-Webb, Blackshear played 18 minutes and fouled out. I laid into him on the podcast. Same old KB2. Early on in the season he averaged a career high in fouls per 40, I think I even made the comment that “at this point he just is who he is.”
The reason I was so hard on Kerry is because you could see his potential all along. The way he moves, uses the glass on the block, his ability to step out and hit the occasional triple, he just needed to be on the court long enough to establish a little bit of flow and rhythm.
Fast forward to January 30th, the Hokies were in Coral Gables playing Miami. Justin Robinson was fresh off a 35 point, 8 assist game against Syracuse in which he broke Bimbo Coles’s assist record. Blackshear had 6 points and 5 rebounds in the Syracuse game. Robinson played 19 minutes and was injured against the ‘Canes. Kerry played 17 minutes, scored 1 point, grabbed 9 rebounds…and fouled out. Thanks to Ahmed Hill and NAW, VPI was still able to win the game. I lit Blackshear up on the podcast once again and I was off the Virginia Tech train. I just couldn’t see how this team could continue to win without Robinson for an extended period of time.
Then it happened. The light switch went on. Kerry Blackshear Jr. arrived.
In the nine games since Robinson went down with a foot injury, Blackshear has averaged 19 points and 9 rebounds while shooting 58.5% from the floor and 47.6% (!!) from behind the arc. He has fouled out of two games and still averaged 3.2 fouls per game, but he has averaged 34.2 minutes per contest and played 39 minutes or more four times. Compare that to the 3.4 fouls per game he averaged in the 20 previous games while only playing 26 minutes per and you can see the obvious improvement.
He did struggle last night against FSU, but that was to be expected and he gets a pass.
During the hot streak the Hokies have gone 5-4, including a win against Duke. That record certainly doesn’t blow you away, but to lose your leader, your senior point guard and remain in the top 25 while playing in the ACC is very impressive.
While the Hokies were not able to secure the double bye for the ACC Tournament, they will still presumably be the #5 seed and get the extra day. Because of Blackshear (and others), they have also managed to remain in the top 15 in both the NET rankings as well as Kenpom by avoiding bad losses against Pitt, Georgia Tech and Notre Dame in J-Robs absence.
Blackshear’s hot streak has also brought him into the conversation of being an All-ACC first team member this season. I believe that four of those spots are probably locked up at the moment by RJ Barrett, Zion Williamson, Coby White and DeAndre Hunter. That leaves Kerry most likely jockeying with Louisville’s Jordan Nwora and possibly Virginia’s Kyle Guy for the fifth spot. For my money, it’s Blackshear.
Robinson is closing in on the original return date that was set at the time of his injury. The six week timetable will end next week and he has been seen in sneakers and out of his boot. If he is able to return, and Blackshear, along with NAW (who has struggled a bit since Robinson’s injury) and Ahmed Hill are able to maintain their level of play, this team could be incredibly dangerous in the NCAA Tournament.
If Robinson is unable to return until the tournament that may be another matter. To incorporate a player back into the lineup fresh off an injury and have to play a tournament game while he knocks the rust off is less than desirable. Here’s hoping he can get a game in before the dance so we can see a dangerous Virginia Tech team at full strength.