When Very Good is Enough

Blackshear riled up during the Ohio State game.

Photo by Chris Humphreys | The Voice-Tribune Blackshear riled up during the Ohio State game.

Averaging 12.6 points per game, Wayne Blackshear is the third-leading scorer on the No. 5 college basketball team in the country. He also ranks as the third-leading rebounder and the senior co-captain of said team. He has been a starter on Louisville’s first national championship team since 1986, and when he leaves UofL in a few months, he’s likely to do so with more wins to his name than any Cardinal player who has gone before him.

Still, Wayne Blackshear has a problem. You see, a few years ago when he was still a teenager, a lot of people who assess the strengths and weaknesses of high school basketball players believed he was a lock to play in the NBA. That’s not always a good thing.

Blackshear arrived at Louisville with as stellar a resume as any Cardinal freshman during the Rick Pitino era. He had been a McDonald’s All-American and was a two-time Player of the Year in the city of Chicago, twice beating out a young man named Anthony Davis.

“This is a big-time score for Rick Pitino,” Rick Bolus, director of High Potential Basketball Recruiting in Shepherdsville, Ky. said at the time of Blackshear’s commitment. “He’s an athletic player who can literally do it all. He’s a coast-to-coast player.”

Adversity struck Blackshear’s college career right away. First it was the NCAA Clearinghouse delaying a decision to declare the freshman eligible to compete for seemingly no reason. Next it was a shoulder injury that kept Blackshear from seeing the floor until February. When that day came, however, Wayne proved he was worth the wait.

In a game where he was expected only to dress and not play, Blackshear came off the bench and scored 13 points to lead Louisville to a hard-fought 77-74 victory at West Virginia. Expectations only grew when Blackshear appeared to be the only Cardinal not intimidated by Kentucky in the 2012 Final Four, throwing down a pair of electric dunks and scoring 9 points off the bench.

With the graduation of Kyle Kuric, college basketball outlets across the country tabbed Blackshear as one of the “breakout stars” for the 2012-13 season. It was a logical jump; only it never happened.

Blackshear started and was a solid contributor on Louisville’s national title team, but by the end of the season it was George Mason transfer Luke Hancock who was seeing the majority of minutes at the three position. A season later, Blackshear improved his scoring average from 7.6 ppg to 8.2 ppg, but again deferred to Hancock in most of UofL’s big games.

The problem with recruiting rankings, just like lottery picks in the NBA Draft, is that fans simply refuse to believe that all these people who get paid to assess talent for a living could be so wrong. That can’t be the case, it has to be that the player just isn’t working hard enough, or is still on the brink of “realizing his potential.”

What if Wayne Blackshear had arrived at Louisville as a 2-star recruit like Russ Smith or Preston Knowles? What if he hadn’t been built up as some type of savior during a time when UofL desperately needed one? If that were the case we’d be talking about a beloved overachiever who has improved his scoring, rebounding and assist averages in all four of his college seasons. We’d be talking about a guy who is the type of player and person that we’d like all Cardinals to be.

All this said, there’s still time for Blackshear to make the type of impact on the court that Cardinal fans have been waiting for. In February and March of 2005, Larry O’Bannon went from a chronic underachiever for three and-a-half seasons to a guy who will always be remembered for a two-month scoring outburst that helped guide UofL to the Final Four.

Maybe similar heroics are in store for Blackshear. Or maybe he’s just always going to be a good, but not great, college basketball player. And maybe that’s okay.

A season ago, Blackshear was named to the Capital One District 2 Academic All-District men’s basketball first team, an honor which recognizes the nation’s top student-athletes for their combined performances athletically and in the classroom. In 2013, Blackshear earned the NCAA Elite 89 Award, which is presented to the student-athlete with the highest cumulative grade-point average participating at the finals site for each of the NCAA’s championships. Talk to anyone associated with Louisville basketball and they’ll tell you that there have been few, if any, nicer young men to wear the red and black.

If we’re not celebrating the college career of Wayne Blackshear, what does that say about us?