UK coach thinks this lesson can turn Sahvir Wheeler into best point guard in the country

Jon Hale
Louisville Courier Journal

LEXINGTON - There may be no better window into the full Sahvir Wheeler experience than Kentucky basketball’s shocking NCAA Tournament loss to Saint Peter’s.

With Kentucky trailing 60-58 and just more than six minutes remaining, Wheeler looked on the verge of carrying the Wildcats to victory. He scored six of UK's next 10 points to give the Wildcats a six-point lead. 

However, the next two possessions featured Wheeler turnovers that allowed Saint Peter's to pull back into the game. Wheeler stumbled on a drive to the lane on Kentucky's final possession of regulation, resulting in a poor shot. He missed two critical free throws in overtime.

There is no doubting Wheeler’s importance to Kentucky – he has led the Southeastern Conference in assists in each of the last two seasons, pesters opponents with his on-ball defense and is often pointed to by teammates and coaches as the Wildcats’ vocal leader – but the late sequence against Saint Peter’s offers a clear window into a summer goal for the point guard.

“It’s more situational awareness,” assistant coach Chin Coleman said. “What I mean by that is, the last five minutes of the game, the last seven minutes of the game, understanding the situation and being aware what to do or don’t. 

“Taking less risk and being more efficient or sharper. We’ve talked about that ad nauseum. I’m expecting for him to be the best point guard in the country.”

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UK’s Sahvir Wheeler (2) lost control of the ball while driving against Saint Peter’s defense during their first round NCAA Tournament game at the Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, In. on Mar. 17, 2022.  Saint Peter’s won 85-79 in OT.

At his best, Wheeler was a game-changing talent during his debut season for Kentucky after transferring from Georgia the previous spring.

In the blowout of North Carolina in Las Vegas, Wheeler totaled a season-high 26 points to go with eight assists, four steal and just two turnovers. He reached double digits in assists five times. He scored at least 15 points in seven games.

But injuries derailed much of his momentum in SEC play.

First, he was sidelined early in the loss at LSU after running into a blindside screen from 7-footer Efton Reid. That injury cost him two full games. He missed a critical stretch in the second half of the loss at Auburn after another collision on a blindside screen.

Wheeler missed two more games in late February but returned in time for the final three regular season games.

"(Fans) were on Sahvir because of that last game," UK coach John Calipari said in a radio appearance this spring." "Do you remember Sahvir against North Carolina and against Kansas, how he played? He had a hell of a year until he got injured. Then he gained some weight, he didn’t play as well.

“But, he’s still that guy. I told him if I can get you right and get you steady in who you are and keep improving — because he’s improving — I said you’re the difference in this stuff."

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Asked about Calipari’s weight comments, Wheeler acknowledged he cut red meat and some other foods out of his diet this summer to help ensure he didn’t drop out of game shape if he needed to take some time away from the basketball court, but he was quick to dismiss the suggestion that his weight was a significant concern.

“Definitely had some weight being gained naturally, but I’m not on Weight Watchers or anything like that,” Wheeler said with a laugh.

Wheeler thinks the improved diet will help him capitalize on the elite speed that so often frustrates opponents on both sides of the ball. Assistant coach Orlando Antigua also reported progress on Wheeler’s shot – he is a career 27.5% shooter from 3-point range – during summer workouts.

The August exhibition games in the Bahamas offer Wheeler a chance to show off that progress. While the outcome of those games will not matter in the long run, Coleman also plans to use the scrimmages to pound home the summer emphasis on situational play.

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Show progress there, and Wheeler could be well on the way to reaching Coleman’s challenge to be the best point guard in the country.

“The situation determines what we’re doing,” Coleman said. “If we’re running that action, we’ve got to run that action and we’ve got to get the best shot possible. We’ve got to get a great shot, not just go for the home run. … That stuff is good, but when it’s time to win the game, we’ve got to play winning basketball.

“He and I have had a lot of conversations this summer about that, and we’re going to continue to have those conversations. You have to live that. You live it through trial and error.”

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