Kahliel Spear taking charge of new opportunity at Robert Morris


Kahliel Spear fends off Jalen Moore of Oakland. Photo Credit: Tyler Gallo

Tyler Gallo and Austin Bechtold

Kahliel Spear has had a whirlwind 2020-21 college basketball season. After entering his name into the transfer portal from Bucknell last season, he joined Robert Morris in May and requested a transfer waiver in hopes of it being approved. Months of waiting ensued, including waiting for games to start, only to find out near Thanksgiving that his transfer waiver was denied. Hope was not lost as the NCAA approved a blanket waiver on December 16, allowing Spear to suit up ahead of the team’s matchup with Bowling Green.

After trying several sports out, Spear stuck with basketball, playing through high school for Lonestar Elite in the AAU and The Colony High School in Texas, he found his calling as he rose in the high school ranks, all culminating in being named team captain his senior year of high school. He averaged 15 points-per-game and 7.6 rebounds-per-game that year. It was around this time that Spear knew he could take it to the college level.

“I didn’t get to play varsity my first two seasons [in high school], and it frustrated me,” Spear said. “To see players who didn’t work as hard as me get to move up was painful, but it made me work even harder. I eventually saw that success come, and thankfully God gifted me with more height too. Being named captain helped my leadership skills.”

Spear recalled playing against Denver Nuggets forward R.J. Hampton, who played for TCHS’ rival Little Elm, and the success he had during the summer of his senior year as the moment things clicked for him. An assistant coach for Bucknell often came to Spear’s high school games which made signing a National Letter of Intent with the Bison that much easier.

“Even though there were schools that were bigger that were talking to me, I always wanted to know that a school wanted me to play there,” Spear said. “Bucknell was the right decision, they had a history of winning and the coaches all helped me grow as a player.”

He would spend his freshman season as a reserve, getting in 14 games off the bench and recording 1.2 points-per-game, racking up four blocks. Spear’s game would take flight during his sophomore year, being relied upon more in the Bison rotation, playing in every game and starting two, averaging 4.8 points and 3.2 rebounds.

He led the Bison in blocks with 26, good for sixth in the Patriot League. The expanded ability on both sides of the ball, mostly defense, was a big part of him gaining more confidence as he went forward.

“It’s always great to hear a coach tell you that you are a defensive impact, especially when you are not playing well offensively,” Spear said. “I love blocking the ball too. Behind breaking ankles and dunking, blocking a shot out of bounds is something that can help pump up your team.”

That summer, Spear entered his name into the transfer portal. The decision to enter the portal was a difficult one for him, but he knew it was the right one to make.

“I talked it over with my family and my friends, and I have been at peace with it ever since,” Spear said. “It was tough leaving the team behind and all the relationships I had built at Bucknell. Thinking long-term, I knew that it was time for a change, and I am happy with my decision.

The transfer portal process was a whirlwind for Spear, sending a letter to the athletic director and then receiving contact from coaches within days after his name was in the portal. The Robert Morris coaching staff did their due diligence on Spear, and the team’s performance in the Northeast Conference championship game made the decision to transfer to Robert Morris that much easier. He announced his decision in May and got the chance to get acclimated with both the team and the systems following that. Spear mentioned that the acclimation to the team was a quick one.

After a transfer is announced, they could choose to sit out the season or apply for a waiver to be immediately eligible, which Spear did. Spear waited several months to hear his answer back from the NCAA, not finding out that his waiver had been denied on November 25 until college basketball insider Jeff Goodman tweeted it out. This moment was a hard one for Spear, never receiving an explanation for the denial.

“I went into the season not expecting to play,” Spear said. “Coming over as a transfer, I thought I would sit out this year, and then I could play two years after. Any basketball player wants to play, so when the season started to come upon us and I heard the opportunity that I would be able to play and I saw these other players getting the transfers approved, it hurt.”

The NCAA did not provide Spear with an explanation as to why he was deemed ineligible, creating a continued confusion as to how transfer waivers are examined. Luckily for Spear, a few weeks later, the NCAA announced the decision to grant all student-athletes immediate eligibility for the current season.

“I couldn’t understand the reasoning and I didn’t get a reason, I didn’t know what it was, but a blessing came later down the road… when they allowed everyone else to play.”

Spear began the season as the first forward off the bench, averaging 8.9 points and 4.2 rebounds-per-game as a defensive sparkplug from the sidelines. With starting forward AJ Bramah transferring on February 12, he was inserted into the starting lineup and made an immediate impact with 16 points against Oakland the same day.

“It does a lot [for confidence]. Not expecting to play this year, it’s helped to boost my confidence a lot,” Spear said. “We have a great group of guys, it’s competitive for minutes, whenever you get that opportunity you got to cherish [playing], you have to make the most of it and I feel like as long as I go out and play hard the stats will come. I want to play hard and continue to impact the way I do whether it’s starting or coming off the bench.”

Adapting to the Horizon League competition has not been much of a challenge for Spear, as both he and the program are facing a new set of opponents and challenges for the first time since leaving the NEC on June 15. He did notice a difference in change in the overall style compared to the Patriot League.

“Athleticism and schemes,” Spear said. “The Patriot League is a lot of Princeton offense. Playing four or five teams in the conference that run that. There are fundamentally sound systems run in that conference. There’s a lot of that run in this conference as well, but it’s more athletic, there are bigger people, the game is played at a different speed.”

The COVID-19 pandemic greatly affected RMU’s early-season schedule, with three pauses at various periods during the end of 2020 and beginning of 2021, forcing Robert Morris to cancel a staggering nine games beginning with the first game of the season against Point Park being delayed.

“At first I wasn’t too upset, I was thinking it would be a one-time thing and we’d be back and we’d be ready to go again,” Spear said. “With the first time that we had to shut down, no one on our team had tested positive, it was contact tracing, somebody we had come in touch with.”

Spear contracted the virus at the time the program was forced to pause for a second time, but battled through it and felt some lingering effects for only a few days after, saying that it started to fade away and feels no after-effects of the virus.

“The second time I got [the virus] so I was down,” Spear said. “It made it harder to get back into the shape that [the team] was in before going into quarantine. Having to go into quarantine for 10-14 days affected conditioning, not being able to run… Although those abrupt start and stops were an annoyance, we were still able to be as productive as we could with the situation.”

The Colonials have struggled closing out games this season, with nine of RMU’s current 12 losses coming by single digits, including three in overtime.

“Mentally it doesn’t affect us. Anybody that has watched our games, win or loss, will tell you we’re never going to stop fighting,” Spear said. “It could be a seven-point game with 15 seconds, we’re going to get a steal and we’re going to finish it, we’re going to still be in the game. The game isn’t over until the buzzer sounds. The overtimes are just a result of just how hard we play, even in the games we played poorly, we’ve been able to stretch these games to overtime because we play hard… With this new back-to-back schedule, it makes it harder playing the next day after you go into overtime.”

Despite the eight-game skid, Spear feels confident that the team will find future success against their fellow Horizon League opponents, with close games providing a platform for items to build on for a potential rematch in the conference tournament.

“Those games that we were losing we were losing by no more than two or three possessions, they were all close games,” Spear said. “The close games hurt the worst. I look at the bigger picture, anybody that watches our season, even though they saw we were on an eight-game losing streak, they knew that we’re not shabby…. It gave us the confidence to know that, if we see [Wright State and others] again in the tournament we’re not scared. They know that it’s not going to be easy.”

Currently averaging 9.3 points and 5.3 boards-per-game, already boosted by being a frequent member of the starting five, Spear has connected the most on the court with the team’s playmaking guards, with the guards and forwards relying on each other to help smooth out the others possessions, open looks, and space. He highlighted Jon Williams and his veteran leadership the senior provides.

“I meshed well with Jon [Williams]. He’s been here for four years, he knows the system very well, like the back of his hand,” Spear said. “He’ll see little things that I won’t see, tell me about them before a play, and then it will happen.”

Playing the 2020-21 season without fans in attendance has been a noticeable loss for Spear, but after the ball is tipped off, the mentality is still the same. He said that energy and enthusiasm from the bench have made up for the lack of conversations in the bleachers.

“You lose that excitement and just the natural experience that you get from the fans that we’ve all taken for granted because we never thought that it would be gone,” Spear said. “The little things, hearing the people argue with the officials and the crowd, or chatting at you because they don’t like you is fun. Not having that there it’s hard but it’s still basketball, once you get into the flow of the game and they have the sounds playing on the speaker you forget that there’s nobody there.”

Spear takes pride in his defensive abilities and tracks his blocks throughout the court of the game. He believes that offense comes through strong defense and trusts that protecting the basket is the key to winning the mental game against an opponent.

“Even the games where I have double-digit scoring or rebounds, if I don’t do my job on the defensive end there’s always going to be something in the back of my head telling me that I can’t say it was a good game,” Spear said. “Being a presence on defense is fun… it comes with the competitive aspect, there might be a little chippiness either way but it’s all out of respect and you earn respect from the defensive end.”

Heading into the Horizon League Tournament, Spear trusts his hard work and dedication will lead to future success and attributes the confidence he has in himself for his inner belief in going into these final battles with a strong faith in himself.

“I’m a confident person, and not in a bad way, you never want to come off as cocky. You have to have confidence in yourself and you gain confidence from the work you put in… We’re not going to be afraid, you don’t go into a fight afraid.”

Robert Morris will face Detroit Mercy on February 19-20 to complete the 2020-21 regular season, followed up by the first round of the conference tournament on Thursday, February 25.

For our full conversation with Kahliel, check out the full interview.