Louisville's Wayne Blackshear celebrates after the Cardinals defeated Michigan for the NCAA title.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- In a long forgotten footnote to his University of Louisville basketball career, Wayne Blackshear's freshman season started late. The NCAA Clearinghouse had academic questions over the Chicago prep standout's high school qualifications and didn't clear him to play until a week after practice began.
The next time the NCAA would make a decision on Blackshear's academics would be a year-and-a-half later, at the 2013 Final Four in Atlanta. That's where it gave him its Elite 89 Award, which goes to the non-freshman among the teams at the Final Four with the highest cumulative grade-point average.
Blackshear went from Clearinghouse to cleaning house academically with a 3.55 GPA as a communications major.
That's an impressive jump. But the classroom isn't the only place where Blackshear has studied hard.
He was very much a high school phenom -- Chicago Sun-Times city player of the year, McDonald's and Parade All-American. It doesn't get much bigger than this in Chicago: Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher showed up to watch his games. (The two are friends through a mutual trainer.) One of his press clippings quotes Illinois governor Pat Quinn, after watching him put up 40 points and 11 rebounds, saying, "I hope Wayne Blackshear is playing for the Bulls someday."
That figured to be someday soon when Blackshear arrived at Louisville. But he suffered a torn labrum in his shoulder in late October of his freshman season, and was presumed finished for the year. It was a testament to his toughness that he was not. He was able to return to the team -- though at far less than 100 percent -- and gave the Cardinals some important minutes on their way to the 2012 Final Four.
Once there, against top-ranked Kentucky, Blackshear played one of his best games of the season, scoring nine points and delivering an early double-clutch dunk. The Cards lost the game, but Blackshear ramped up expectations for his sophomore season.
The summer of 2012 was spent getting back into game shape. His long injury absence had left him overweight, and as is his style, Pitino wasn't shy about letting him -- and everyone else -- know it. Affectionate though it was, the nickname "Fat Wayne" made its way around the online Fanocracy, and Blackshear set about the work of obliterating it. It got to the point where fans were asking Blackshear about his weight when he was out in public.
But when practice began in the fall, Blackshear was actually one percentage point below the 10 percent body fat that Pitino mandates.
Still, after two shoulder surgeries (he'd undergone one after an injury in the McDonald's All-American game), it took more than conditioning to get him back where he wanted when it came to execution.
"People just don't understand what it is to come back from those things," Pitino said early in the season. "He's still not the player I recruited in high school, still hasn't recovered to get to that point physically. But he's going to get there."
Early in the season, before Luke Hancock began to heat up from three-point range, Blackshear was the Cards' most efficient shooter. In fact, people couldn't understand why he wasn't getting even more time than Hancock.
After going 5 of 8 from three-point range to score a career-high 17 points in a loss at Villanova, Blackshear looked to be getting it going. Then he went 1-for-9 from the field in a loss to Georgetown. Then he banged his shoulder in practice and sat for a week, missing a matchup with Pittsburgh.
But during that week on the sideline, Blackshear started studying -- and not just his school books. Blackshear broke himself down on video. Sometimes, he didn't feel like he was watching himself.
"I was just taking a bunch of jump shots and not attacking on offense," Blackshear said. "I just needed to get more aggressive. And I needed to take better shots. The team doesn't need me taking anything but good shots."
Two games later, Blackshear had 19 points in 14 minutes at Rutgers. Still, it took him some time to get back closer to 100 percent, while Hancock kept heating up from the small forward spot. Blackshear stayed in the starting lineup, but his minutes decreased.
He didn't complain. With Hancock hitting, he looked for other things to contribute.
"When Luke's got it going, if I can defend and rebound and do all those things, it makes things even tougher for the other team," Blackshear said.
And once again, Blackshear finished the season in a way that should have fans excited about the next.
He's the answer to this trivia question: Who scored Louisville's first points of the first and second half of the NCAA championship game?
Blackshear started them both off -- with three pointers. In fact, he scored U of L's first five points of the title game to offset national player of the year Trey Burke scoring the first seven points for Michigan.
Everybody remembers Montrezl Harrell's monster dunk that gave the Cardinals a one-point lead after being down 12 late in the first half. They may not remember that it was Blackshear who ran down the loose ball (off a Hancock deflection) and hit ahead to Peyton Siva on the play.
He came to U of L as a phenom, but he did not bring the typical phenom baggage. When he had to work hard, especially to rehabilitate his injured shoulder, he did. When he had to accept a role, he did. When he needed to evaluate his game, he did. When he needed to be a part of a bigger picture, he did.
"On this team, in this program, everybody is going to have his moment," Blackshear said on the court after the NCAA championship game. "If you play here, your moment is going to come. All season we just tried to trust each other and do our jobs and try to help other guys do their jobs. I don't know if I could ask for much more. I've played two years, been to two Final Fours, a national championship. That's why you come to play here."
Couldn't ask for much more. But will he?
"Definitely," he said.
Blackshear may have seemed to move to the background when Hancock heated up this past season. But Pitino has him in the forefront of next season's plans. He wants Blackshear better off the bounce, so that he can use him on side pick-and-rolls. In combination with the other scorers on the team, he believes it will put even more pressure on opposing defenses.
If Blackshear has proven anything in two seasons, it's that he's a reliable student. He expects to ace his offseason assignments, and, after two Final Fours in two seasons, to keep pushing for the finals.
This series of championship profiles is part of an e-Book compilation from WDRB.com and Eric Crawford titled, "The Run," a look back at the University of Louisville's NCAA title run through Eric's game stories from WDRB, and new material on the players and Coach Rick Pitino. The e-Book will be available FREE OF CHARGE from WDRB.com in May, via the web site in easy-to-adapt PDF form, or from the iTunes store, as a thank you to our readers. TOMORROW'S PROFILE: Stephan Van Treese.
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