When Kentucky starts bouncing basketballs for semi-real in the Bahamas on Wednesday night, the Wildcat I most want to see is the one at the wheel.
Sahvir Wheeler is an anomaly in John Calipari’s time at UK. Wheeler joins Andrew Harrison (2014-15), Tyler Ulis (2015-16) and Ashton Hagans (2019-20) as point guards who returned for a second season under the Kentucky coach. Yet Wheeler stretches that distinction two steps beyond. Back-to-back years as a Georgia Bulldog started his career, so 2022-23 will be his fourth season of college hoops.
Alas, his third ended with a thud. Echoing the adage, Wheeler picked a bad time to have a bad night, making just two of five free throws and committing six turnovers, including a pair of costly errors down the stretch, in the Wildcats’ shocking 85-79 overtime loss to No. 15 seed Saint Peter’s in the first round of the NCAA Tournament last March.
That’s led to a summer of viral strands of second-guessing throughout the Big Blue faithful, especially with regard to the Houston-via-New York native who runs the floor show.
Is Wheeler the spark plug who scored 26 points, dished eight assists and made four steals in UK’s 98-69 drubbing of eventual national runner-up North Carolina? Is he the catalyst who delivered eight assists in the Wildcats’ 80-68 thumping of eventual champion Kansas right there in Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence?
Or is Wheeler the player who was benched at crunch-time of UK’s loss at Notre Dame? Or the player who shot just 30.8 percent from three-point range on the season and often played too fast for his own good, spinning out of control at key points of tight games?
“Situational awareness,” was the term UK assistant coach Chin Coleman used recently, before adding he believed Wheeler “can be the best point guard in the country.”
Last year, Wheeler was one of the few point guards in the country who gained weight during the season. Sidelined twice by injuries, he packed on an additional 8 or 9 pounds which Calipari believes affected Wheeler’s play late in the season.
Last month, Wheeler reported that he’s back to playing shape with a promise to prioritize his diet. He’s cut back on red meat and pasta. “I’m not on Weight Watchers or anything like that,” he said, but reported, “I’m as fast, even faster than I once was. More explosive than I was last year.”
No one questions Wheeler’s defensive influence. Despite his size (5-foot-9), he’s a dogged on-the-ball defender, one whose pest-like qualities can change the opposition’s plan of attack. He’s a player who can influence the game’s tempo at either end of the floor.
Offensively, he has led the SEC in assists the last two seasons — 6.9 a game at Georgia in 2020-21 and 7.4 last season at Kentucky. And his three-point shooting did improve from the 22.5 percent he brought with him from his sophomore season at Georgia. His overall shooting went from 39.9 percent in 2020-21 to 44.1 in 2021-22.
“I believe he’s going to be a much better shooter this year,” Coleman said.
While Wheeler did cut his turnovers-per-game average from 4.4 his final year at Georgia to 3.0 his first season at Kentucky, the numbers don’t tell the whole story.
In fact, it says here for Kentucky to get where Kentucky always wants to go, Wheeler needs to be a more consistent decision-maker, one who plays like the senior he will be, one that Calipari and his teammates can trust in the clutch.
The tools are certainly there. And Wheeler has shown he’s capable of making those game-winning plays, whether that means getting the ball to Oscar Tshiebwe, or an open shooter, or attacking the rim himself. He just needs to be more consistent, more under control when the situation calls for him to be under control.
That’s what I’ll be looking for as the Cats embark on these four games in the Bahamas. I’ll be watching the guy with the ball in his hands. The one in the driver’s seat. After all, from the first exhibition game to the end of March Madness, it’ll start with Sahvir.