Wayne Blackshear’s blood-stained jersey late in the second half of Lousville’s Elite Eight loss to Michigan State provided the perfect symbolism for the outgoing senior’s college career.
The captain of this year’s Louisville team bled and sacrificed for his team over the past four seasons, but not in the same way as a player like Russ Smith, perhaps, who would sacrifice his undersized frame on drives to the basket to get points. Blackshear’s bleeding and sacrifice was different.
His bleeding came from the blows he received from critical fans and media types, who frequently criticized him for not doing enough on offense or for disappearing in big moments. His sacrifice was rather that of his individual glory for the sake of his team’s ultimate goals. Because his individual statistics many times did not live up to his billing out of high school, though, he became arguably the most oft-criticized player of the past four seasons.
Considered one of the most dynamic scorers in the class of 2011 who would slash through the lanes and attack the basket with confidence, Louisville fans were giddy when Blackshear signed with Louisville, hoping he would become the next superstar to don a Cardinal uniform. Some fans had already begun speculation that he would be a “one-and-done” who would ultimately go on to represent the Cards in the NBA as a star in the league. As it turns out, though, he served as more of a role player over his four-year career, which left many fans underwhelmed and often times frustrated.
There were times, in those fans’ defense, where criticism of Blackshear’s play was warranted. There were times when he was too passive on offense or chose to resort to a spot-up shooter role when he could have penetrated the lane. Fans would call him out for “disappearing” in big moments, some taking to social media to mockingly give him the nickname “Big Game Wayne.” Quietly, though, what many fans were failing to realize is how much Louisville was winning with him on the court.
Since commencing his career on February 11, 2012 in a Big East matchup at West Virginia, Louisville has a record of 104-25. For those who are not math majors, that means Louisville has won roughly 81% of their games since Blackshear became an active member of the team. That includes helping his team get to two Final Fours, one Sweet 16, one Elite Eight, and win a national championship. And despite his reputation for not showing up in big games, when it came down to “win or go home,” he stepped up quite nicely when needed.
During his freshman season, his 9 points in 14 minutes in Louisville’s Final Four matchup with Kentucky kept the Cards in the game. In the national championship game the following season, he scored the first 5 points of the game for Louisville and hit a huge second-half opening three to give the Cards the lead and help keep the momentum from the team’s late first-half surge. His most noticeably flawed performance in that type of game came the following year vs. Kentucky in the Sweet 16, when he only managed 3 points and 4 shot attempts in the loss. He was far from the only one to have a flawed performance, though.
This season, though, he did his part to shed the stereotype. His 22-point performance was major in an early-season win over Ohio State. In a tough loss vs. a surprisingly tough NC State team late in the season, he still hit 7 of 10 shots to finish with 19 points. In Louisville’s ugly first-round ACC Tournament loss to UNC, he was one of the bright spots, scoring 18 points. It was in the NCAA Tournament, though, where he really took his game to another level.
Blackshear’s played in the tournament like a man who did not want to finish college without cutting down more nets. Louisville was far less than perfect in the opening round vs. UC-Irvine, and without Blackshear’s aggressive play and 19 points, the team would have fallen victim to an embarrassing first-round defeat. His 20 points combined the next two games were also instrumental in advancing, and in his swan song performance vs. Michigan State, he left everything on the court.
While the Cards failed to deliver that game, Blackshear did everything he could and more to try and avoid the ultimate outcome. In what was arguably his best performance in a Louisville uniform, he dominated the game, scoring 28 points, hitting four three-pointers, including three in a row in a Hancock-esque sequence, and hit all 12 of his free throws. To see him play so well, to do everything he could to help his team win, was a tough blow. He finished the tournament averaging 16.8 points and 4.3 rebounds per game while shooting 40.6% from the field and 40% from three.
His time at Louisville has been peppered with “what if” questions, but in reality, it should be remembered far more fondly.
This is a player who spurned his Nike-affiliated team’s wishes to commit to Louisville, which allegedly took him out of consideration for the Nike-sponsored Jordan Brand High School All-American game. Despite incessant rumors that he would ultimately not sign (including rumors that one World Wide Wes was attempting to pull some strings), he stuck to his guns and to his word.
Maybe he never put up the individual numbers most wanted to see out of him, and maybe he was not featured in the offense as much as some would have liked for him to be, but never once in his four years at Louisville did he complain. When he struggled to find rhythm during his first full season as a sophomore, he could have taken the easy way out and transferred. After all, he was still an incredibly talented player with a lot to offer, but he never considered it (at least pubicly). Going from high school superstar to role player and arguably a second option to players like Kyle Kuric and Luke Hancock must be a humbling experience, but he took it all in stride and held his head high.
All he did at Louisville was what was asked of him. Rick Pitino constantly praised his character and his willingness to do what he wanted him to do. Following games, Blackshear was almost always the first one there to answer questions and the last one to leave. He would answer every question, no matter how ridiculous (and there are some ridiculous ones) in a professional and courteous manner and would look the reporter directly in the eye. He spoke respectfully to the media and about the fans, even if the latter was not always reciprocated.
He will not have his jersey hanging from the rafters of the YUM! Center, he never put up All-American-like numbers, and his professional career is still a question mark, so in that regard, he did not live up to some fans’ expectations. He did live up to other kinds of expectations, though, and the kind that truly matter.
He helped hang banners for his team. He helped win a national championship. He put his team before himself, and he never once got into any trouble off the court. He wore his jersey with honor on the court, and off the court, he represented the university and the city of Louisville with respect.
He played for the name on the front, not the name on the back, and he helped launch Louisville back to being an elite team on an annual basis. For that, he deserves the same respect from the fans as he showed to them, the city, and the program.