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January 17, 2014

Wayne's new role gets off to a fast start




Chalk up Chapter One of the Wayne Blackshear Experiment as a rousing success. Chapter Two, a much more demanding test, will come Saturday night when No. 18/14 Louisville (15-3, 4-1 AAC) meets Connecticut (14-3, 2-2) in Gampel Pavilion in Storrs, Conn. (9 o'clock, ESPN).

Regardless, Blackshear is certainly heading East under a full head of steam after turning in his best performance of the season Thursday night in a 91-52 rout of a disinterested Houston team.

The junior forward saw his string of 31 consecutive starts end, but he came off the bench with a fury and wound up with a career-high 23 points, a season-best seven rebounds and added two assists and a block while playing 29 minutes.

Blackshear wasn't benched for a lack of effort or any other shortcoming. UofL coach Rick Pitino felt Blackshear was being victimized by erratic officiating that landed him into early foul trouble and limited his effectiveness. In four of the previous five games, Blackshear had averaged just 14 minutes, and he had managed to play more than 18 minutes only once in the last seven. Furthermore, when he was on the court, his aggressiveness naturally suffered.

"I think Wayne was being taken out of the game quickly," Pitino said. "We want to get 20-25 minutes out of him and I think coming off the bench will help him immensely."

It certainly did against Houston.

"It's tough, tough calls and you've just got to live with them or get better from it," Blackshear said of the fouls. "I didn't take them personally or anything. Coach talked to me and he said he actually wanted to keep the lineup the way it is, but he said I think it will be better if you come off the bench.

"Coming off the bench gave me an opportunity to check out the game for awhile. I think I looked at it as I could kind of pick my spots, so it helped me out."

It was Blackshear's first non-start since Jan. 28, 2013, when he sat out UofL's 64-61 win over Pittsburgh, but it didn't bother him.

"I'm ready for anything," said. "When Coach told me that, I said, 'That's fine with me. I'm ready to do whatever.' I don't mind it at all. We got a lot of guys who can start on this team. It doesn't matter who starts."

This time the 6-foot-5 Chicago native picked up three fouls, but he had just one in the first half.

"It definitely helped my aggressiveness," he said. "Staying out of foul trouble is something you want to do and it kept me in a groove."

He was in so much of a groove that late in the second half, he drilled three straight 3-pointers from almost exactly the same spot on the left wing and then added another mid-range jumper for four in a row. He finished 8-of-10, including 5-of-6 from beyond the arc.

Can Blackshear play any better?

"I can play more consistently," he says. "Anybody on this team can score. As long as I can play consistent basketball I'll be okay."

"Wayne just stayed aggressive the whole time, looked for his shot, and that's how he has to play," teammate Luke Hancock said. "He has to take care of all the little things. He's gonna rebound the ball, he's gonna pass the ball, play great defense and then when his shots fall like that he's such a big part of the team."

Now comes UConn, which will be a much bigger challenge. The Huskies were reeling before Thursday, having dropped two of their first three conference games. But they snapped out of a slump by upsetting No. 17 Memphis 83-73 on the road behind 6-9 junior forward DeAndre Daniels' 23 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks.

The game matches the two best guards in the AAC, both seniors -- UofL's Russ Smith and UConn's Shabazz Napier. Smith is averaging 18.1 points per game and 4.9 assists, while Napier is averaging 16.0 ppg and a league-leading 6.0 assists.

"Gampel is alive," Smith says. "It's a tough place to play. They have great fans. They have great guards. They have a great coach. It should be fun."

The Cards have won six of the last seven games against the Huskies, the loss coming 69-66 in the 2011 Big East Tournament final with UConn en route to the eventual national championship. UofL owns a three-game winning streak in Gampel.



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