Big Game Wayne Blackshear comes up big for Louisville

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- They call him Big Game Wayne here in town, and it's not in a nice way.

For much of Wayne Blackshear's career, he's been derided for what he hasn't been instead of what Louisville fans hoped he could be. There have been reasons -- a bum shoulder limited the former McDonald's All-American the better part of his freshman year -- but the cold truth is in big games, Blackshear just hasn't been big.

Against nine ranked opponents last season, he played 130 minutes and scored just 27 points. During three NCAA tournament games, it was worse: 15 points across 56 minutes.

Which is why Blackshear's game against No. 14 Ohio State -- a ranked opponent, a big game -- was so … big. He had 16 at the half and finished with 22, one shy of his career high.

That's more than a third of the fifth-ranked Cardinals' offense in the 64-55 win in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.

"Coach sat me down at the beginning of the season and told me what he needed from me," Blackshear said. "He said I've been here the longest, and I needed to step up. He knows the kind of player I am. He knows what I can do."

Knowing and doing, though, are two different things, and up until this season, there's been less doing for Blackshear.

Arguably the biggest recruit when he arrived on campus, Blackshear's career has been a roller coaster, with the ups more like uphill climbs than soars to the top.

There have been flashes. In his first game back as a freshman after the shoulder injury, he scored 13 against West Virginia, and in the Final Four against Kentucky, his rebound/dunk putback still reverberates around the city.

Each time, fans thought he had arrived.

And each time, the flashes were followed by a slow fizzle.

The 16-point first half outburst against Ohio State was more than Blackshear scored in all but three games a year ago.

But based on this season so far, the Blackshear everyone's been waiting for might finally have arrived.

It's not just the numbers -- double figures in four of six games; it's the way he looks on the court.

He looks confident. He wants the ball.

"I'm a senior," Blackshear said. "I know what I've been through, but I'm not going to let any of that bother me. I know how to play, and I know what to do."

That's a critical bit of knowledge for the Cards this year because they need Blackshear to be good in all games -- big and small.

The Cardinals are, once again and as always, really good on defense. They made what had been a high-flying Ohio State team turn back the clock to last year's pedestrian version. The Buckeyes came in shooting 56 percent; at the half, they had 18 points and were hitting only 23 percent.

Between Louisville's relentless ball pressure and inside presence, Ohio State simply could not get a good look.

"That's about as fine a half we've played defensively in a long, long time, and that's including past years," Rick Pitino said. "That's what's carrying us right now."

Which is exactly the problem, and why Blackshear is so critical. As good as that defense is, the offense is that much a work in progress. Connecting on just seven field goals in all of the second half, Louisville practically gave back all of its 17-point halftime lead.

Two big 3-pointers from Terry Rozier -- one when the Buckeyes had made it 54-46 and another when they got it to 56-53 -- preserved the lead and the win, but the points were hard to come by.

"Our offense is going to come," Pitino said. "We're passing the ball well. We're getting open shots but they aren't going in. We will start making them. Chris [Jones], Terry and Wayne are going to be good shooters."

Going to be, though, isn't enough. The time, at least, for one of them it has to be now.

There are big games looming for the Cardinals -- the little tango with Kentucky, in which the first team to 15 very well could win -- and then an entire slate in the ACC.

This isn't the brawling Big East, nor is it the American -- whatever that was -- for the year the Cards played in it. Take away Virginia and Pittsburgh, and look hard at the roots (especially the ones on Tobacco Road), and you've got a conference in the ACC that likes to score.

Louisville's defense will be a great equalizer, but it alone won't be enough.

In the big games especially, the Cards are going to need offense.

They're going to need Big Game Wayne.