Louisville’s departure from last season’s NCAA tournament was a tough one to swallow. Most notably for the junior wing from Chicago, Wayne Blackshear.
Blackshear, Louisville’s lone McDonald’s high school All-American, labored through an at times meandering junior campaign. He started 18 games for the Cardinals, tallying just under 20 minutes, 8 points and 3 rebounds per contest.
What was most difficult to swallow for Blackshear, was what Head Coach Rick Pitino had to say at his season-ending presser just days after elimination.
“The only player I’ve had in the past four years that hasn’t had substantial improvement is Wayne Blackshear,” said Pitino.
“We’ve got to turn over a whole new leaf. For his own sake, he’s got to wake up and understand that the world will pass him by if he doesn’t live in that gym.”
The Morgan Park product was considered one of the highest rated juniors in the country, when he gave Louisville, and Pitino, his verbal commitment. An athletic enforcer with size and strength — akin to fellow Morgan Park and Mighty Duck’s alumnus, Dean Portman — that was college ready, he made his name by bullying opponents around the basket where finishing in traffic became his forte.
But before Blackshear even arrived for his freshman season at Louisville, he was dealing with a pretty significant shoulder injury and ruled himself out of the McDonalds All-American game.
He had dislocated the shoulder and had a partial tear and some chipped bone to go along with the dislocation. Blackshear did end up playing in the coveted all-star game. With basically one arm, he managed to score two points in 8 minutes of action. The rest of his summer was spent rehabbing in preparation for his first year with the Cardinals.
Once Blackshear arrived in Louisville his eligibility was held up for nearly a week into the official start of practice. In his first practice back, he suffered yet another shoulder injury and was presumed finished for the year. He was able to return to the team before tournament play began, though not nearly at 100 percent to give the Cardinals some quality minutes en route to the 2012 Final Four.
“If you asked me to rate on a 10-point scale him as a person, I’d give him an 11, but I told Wayne yesterday as I met with the players that you reap what you sow in this game,” Pitino said last March.
“He’ll show up at practice and he’ll give 100 percent, but that’s not what our players do here. The Luke Hancocks, the Russ Smiths, the Gorgui Diengs — they get in early, they stay late, they come after, they come at night time. I said, ‘You’re not doing that.” Pitino preached.
It wasn’t long after Pitino’s comments that Blackshear’s former high school coach Nick Irvin spoke out and said that he should have never committed to Louisville.
“The only one of our guys that didn’t hold out for a while was Wayne Blackshear,” Morgan Park High School coach Nick Irvin said when discussing the recruitment of his current players.
“He made an early decision and it was a mistake. Just a terrible decision to go to Louisville. We told him that at the time. They shouldn’t have rushed it.”
The senior was named co-captain earlier this year, and since then, Pitino said he’s seen the dedication from Blackshear that he hadn’t in the previous three years combined.
Blackshear realized that working hard simply wasn’t enough, he needed to take his time in the gym to another level.
“I don’t want to get my hopes too high, but this is the best Wayne has looked in a long time. It has finally gotten through to him that the sand is running out in the hourglass. I think I challenged him, and I think at first he was upset with me, but he realized what I was trying to do. It’s like you’re a senior, and you need to get your resume out, but you keep procrastinating and waiting and your competition is beating you to the punch. You finally start getting it out because people are getting to work earlier. I think he’s ready to get to punch the clock and have a great senior year,” said Pitino.
Shaqquan Aaron, a 5 star recruit, and the #2 shooting guard in the country, according to 247Sports.com, hailing from Rainier Beach, Wash., which produced former Louisville star Terrance Williams, was brought in not just to be Blackshear’s eventual replacement. He came to challenge Blackshear for minutes, and to potentially start, if Blackshear didn’t progress, Pitino noted.
Eligibility issues have since surfaced for Aaron, and any chance he might have at supplanting Blackshear will have to wait for now. It might not matter anyway, as the new, or should I say, old Wayne Blackshear appears to be back.
In Louisville’s two exhibition games, Blackshear appears to be primed for the type of year we’ve all envisioned since he commited back on Christmas Day in 2011. He didn’t settle for his teammates to find him for an open jump shot that he’s fallen in love with the past 3 years. He was aggressively attacking the rim, something Pitino said we will notice the most in Wayne’s game this year.
With the departures of Russ Smith and Luke Hancock, the Cardinals are going to need more consistency from Blackshear.
He’s been anything but while at Louisville. Often handcuffed by foul trouble, he’s never found the rhythm to put it all together night in and night out. If the Cardinals have serious aspirations of making a title run, it starts with Blackshear.
The final chapter of Blackshear’s tenure at Louisville begins tomorrow night. The Armed Forces Classic in Puerto Rico will pit Blackshear and the Cardinals against one of his former assistant coaches, Richard Pitino, and the Minnesota Golden Gophers. Like many of Louisville’s games this season, it will be nationally televised and the world will be watching with anticipation as another college hoops season kicks off.
Blackshear’s put in the work and the Cards will ultimately go as far as he can carry them. As his final season is set to begin, Blackshear was confronted with his importance to the team, and that’s exactly what he needed.