South Carolina Kentucky Basketball

Kentucky’s Sahvir Wheeler receives instruction from head coach John Calipari during the Wildcats’ loss to South Carolina on Jan. 10 in Lexington.

There isn’t a program in the country that wouldn’t want a player on its roster that is on pace to lead its conference in assists for a third straight season.

That is the case for Kentucky point guard Sahvir Wheeler, who led the SEC in assists while at Georgia during the 2020-21 season with 7.4 per game, and transferred to UK and did so again last season with 6.9 per game. This year he leads the conference averaging 5.9 assists.

Wheeler, however, is no longer in UK’s starting lineup and his minutes have been greatly reduced. Meanwhile, Kentucky has gone from a team whose NCAA tournament hopes were nearly dead to one that is red hot and starting to meet its preseason expectations.

Kentucky has won three straight games where its offense has been among its most efficient all season, with Wheeler missing the victory over No. 5 Tennessee with a shoulder injury and playing a combined 19 minutes in wins over Georgia and Texas A&M.

He’s been almost a non-factor in the second half of games. Against both Georgia and Texas A&M, he played just one minute in the second half, with UK getting outscored by five points in those two minutes.

Kentucky’s best lineup has featured freshman Cason Wallace at the point teamed up with Antonio Reeves, CJ Fredrick, Jacob Toppin and Oscar Tshiebwe. That group has played the majority of the second half each of the last three games and has outscored opponents by 42, while any other combination of five has been outscored by 12.

Wallace helped UK outscore Georgia by 25 points, good for the highest +/- on the team despite Tshiebwe posting 37 points and 24 rebounds in the win. Wheeler posted a -3 and was the only player on the team with a negative +/-. Saturday against Texas A&M, Wallace posted a +8 while Wheeler again ranked lowest on the team with a -7.

Despite all this, Wheeler’s coaches and teammates have made it clear to do anything special, the senior point guard has to play a key role.

“Really important. I know a lot of people are talking bad about him but this team is nothing without Sahvir,” Toppin said before the Texas A&M game. “He does a lot for us, whether he’s starting or coming off the bench. He brings a lot of energy to this team and he changes the pace of the game on the offensive end, he defends very well even though he’s small. He fights, he’s tough, so all the negative comments about him could go out the window. He’s really important to this team and we need him in order to do something special.”

“Very important,” assistant coach Chin Coleman added. “For us to reach the heights that we’re capable of reaching, we need a good Sahvir. If everyone is good, no one player has to be great. We know that we need Sahvir to be good for us and he will be. It’s a long season. He’s not out. I think our staff, our players, everyone knows how much we need Sahvir. I think that he understands that.”

Wheeler is one of the best passers in the country, a gritty defender who averages nearly a steal per game and is among the most experienced players on UK’s roster.

The question, however, is what role will he play? That has gone unanswered and remains a big question going forward until Wheeler settles back into the starting lineup, finds a bigger role on the bench, or remains playing limited minutes.

As the process of finding out his role unfolds, Wheeler has been a good sport. He’s been one of the most vocal players on the bench, encouraging his teammates and has not been discouraged by the reduced playing time.

“He’s happy with the way the other guys are playing and as long as they’re playing good and as long as we’re winning, he’s okay with that,” Coleman said. “But he’s still a big part of what we’re doing and that’s not going to change.”

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