SEC provides Kentucky basketball's 2021-22 roster a boost with transfer rule change

Jon Hale
Louisville Courier Journal

LEXINGTON - The Southeastern Conference has cleared the way for Georgia transfer Sahvir Wheeler to play for Kentucky basketball this season.

While the NCAA has moved to allow players to transfer once without sitting out a year, Wheeler's eligibility for the 2021-22 season remained in question because the SEC previously required transfers from one league school to another to sit out a season regardless of their NCAA eligibility. On Thursday, the SEC followed the lead of several other conferences this spring in abolishing its intra-conference transfer rule to reflect the NCAA's new one-time free transfer policy.

“This is an important measure to further support student-athletes throughout the Southeastern Conference,” SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey said in a news release. “While maintaining the expectation that coaches and others avoid improper recruiting, this change will ensure that student-athletes who enroll at an SEC member institution will enjoy the flexibility afforded to other student-athletes across the nation.”

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To gain immediate eligibility, SEC intraconference transfers will need to declare their intent to transfer by February 1 for fall sports, May 1 for winter sports and July 1 for spring sports. 

As a sophomore, Wheeler led the Southeastern Conference in assists per game (7.4), averaging 2.5 more assists per game than any other qualifying player in the league. The 5-foot-10, 180-pound Houston, Texas native also averaged 14 points and 3.8 rebounds per game. He ranked fifth in the SEC in steals per game (1.7).

Before signing with UK in May, Wheeler declared for the NBA draft. His name was still on the NBA's early entry list released after the deadline to declare for the draft Sunday, but with the SEC clearing the way for him to play at Kentucky, he is expected to remove his name from the draft pool soon.

"I wouldn’t have made the move if I felt like I was going to have to sit out this year," Wheeler said last month, expressing confidence the SEC would change the intraconference transfer rule. "... At the end of the day, I was just looking for the best opportunity for me whether I was going to play this year or I wasn’t. I was looking forward to an opportunity to play right away, when I was able to play, to have an immediate impact, make an impact on winning, make a run at the national championship, and surround myself with guys who are going to help elevate my game."

Wheeler moved into campus with the majority of Kentucky's team this week and has been participating in the program's youth camps around the state in recent days.

This season, he is likely to compete with five-star freshman TyTy Washington for the starting point guard spot. While Wheeler has struggled from 3-point range thus far in his college career, the two point guards could also play together thanks to Washington's reputation as a strong shooter.

"We’ve had a kid like him that was a little different than him: Tyler Ulis, who could impact the game and was smaller" UK coach John Calipari said of the 5-foot-10 Wheeler. “... Obviously, Tyler was drafted and played in the league, and he’s had two hip surgeries, which have set him back. Here’s a kid that was smaller and lighter, so I’m excited about it. Until we get all these guys here and see how these pieces match, you just don’t know."

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By abolishing the intra-conference transfer rule, the SEC does not have to worry about ruling on a host of waiver requests to the rule.

Last year, the SEC issued a blanket waiver allowing all intraconference transfers, including UK football quarterback Joey Gatewood, to play immediately due to the COVID-19 pandemic. SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said in March he did not anticipate entertaining waivers requests again, instead pushing league members to make a firm decision on the intraconference transfer rule.

The rule change also paves the way for former North Oldham basketball star Justin Powell to play for Tennessee this season after transferring from Auburn.

Email Jon Hale at jahale@courier-journal.com; Follow him on Twitter at @JonHale_CJ