College Sports

Back yet again: Louisville’s Sweet 16 veteran Wayne Blackshear a rarity in today’s college basketball

College basketball would be a better place if it had more Wayne Blackshears.

Louisville’s storied program has had three national championships, 10 Final Fours, 20 All-Americans and 66 players drafted into the NBA. It’s had Wes Unseld, Pervis Ellison, Darrell Griffith and Rodney McCray.

But famed U of L has never had a player who’s done what Blackshear is doing this week.

On Friday in Syracuse, New York, the senior forward from Chicago will become the first Cardinal to play in four Sweet 16s of the NCAA tournament. He and fourth-seeded Louisville (26-8) face eighth-seeded North Carolina State (22-13) in the East Regional semifinals.

“It’s great,” Blackshear said with a laugh Sunday in the SuperSonics’ former locker room at KeyArena, after he scored the 1,000th point of his Louisville career and made the key play of the Cardinals’ third-round win over Northern Iowa. “A lot of players can’t say they’ve been to four Sweet 16s.”

Almost none.

Blackshear is an anomaly — an exemplary one — in college hoops. Today, programs are often mere one- or two-year stopovers on a teen star’s fast track to the NBA.

Think about it: Since 2012, Washington’s had two players get drafted into the NBA in the same summer, Terrence Ross and Tony Wroten. UW now has a third who is considering leaving, junior point guard Nigel Williams-Goss. And the Huskies have been to exactly zero NCAA tournaments in that span.

Put another way: How many McDonald’s All-Americans (Blackshear averaged more than 32 points as a senior for Morgan Park in Chicago’s Public League) stay four seasons as a whatever-you-need role player at one of the nation’s most successful programs to not only get his degree but academic All-America honors?

That’s Blackshear. Yet because he hasn’t scored prodigiously and left already to the NBA, he’s been heavily criticized around basketball-mad Kentucky for underachieving.

“It’s very easy to criticize, it’s very easy. It takes no talent at all to criticize,” Cardinals coach Rick Pitino said on his way out of Seattle. “But the coaching staff, every coach that’s coached Wayne Blackshear, thinks he’s the greatest kid in the world, thinks he’s one of the hardest workers.

“We have been tremendously blessed by his presence at the University of Louisville. … Understand that Wayne decided when he came here that he’s going to fit into whatever the coaches asked him to do.”

Last weekend Terry Rozier got the headlines for his 25 points and seven assists that repelled Northern Iowa and sent Louisville to its 21st Sweet 16.

But the Cardinals would have been back home along the Ohio River before Sunday if Blackshear hadn’t rescued a sputtering offense in Friday’s second round at KeyArena. He had 19 points in a 57-55 escape against 13th-seeded UC Irvine.

Then Sunday, Northern Iowa rallied from 13 points down to within six with four minutes left and had a fastbreak off Blackshear’s turnover. A UNI guard sent a fancy, bounced-back pass from the rim to trailing teammate Wes Washpun. He soared for what appeared to be an uncontested dunk. Blackshear, sprinting 50 feet and determined to atone, swooped in seemingly from Tacoma to block the dunk. The ball caromed toward midcourt to start a Louisville counter break, which ended when Rozier lofted a dazzling alley-oop pass for a thunderous dunk by Montrezl Harrell. That put the Cardinals back up by eight and sealed their latest trip to the regional round.

“Awesome,” is what Pitino called Blackshear’s block after the game. “If there’s one key in the game, it was that.”

Blackshear bulled through a dislocated left shoulder in the spring of his senior year in high school, then a torn labrum that required surgery on his right shoulder in October of that same year, 2011. That was weeks into his first practices at Louisville. He returned to play in February of his freshman season that ended in the Final Four.

As a sophomore he was a starter on the team that won Louisville’s third national championship. Months later he watched teammate Gorgui Dieng leave as an underclassmen to Minnesota in the first round of the 2013 NBA draft. Dieng is a usual starter in his second season with the Timberwolves.

After Blackshear’s junior season, in the spring of 2014, another former Cardinals teammate declared early for the draft, Chane Behanan. Pitino had kicked Behanan out of his program that season, reportedly for marijuana use. Behanan did not get drafted, then landed for a few months in the Development League before Rio Grande Valley deactivated him in January.

Meanwhile, Blackshear is making history Friday in his fourth Sweet 16 while as a second-team academic All-American. He has a 3.4 GPA majoring in communications.

“What a gentleman he is,” Pitino said. “Understand how humble he is.

“He’s a young man that has been part of three 30-win seasons, a national championship, two Final Fours, three conference championships. I don’t know how many people can win more than him.”