Kentucky’s starting point guard, Sahvir Wheeler, has been a lightning rod for criticism (Dr. Michael Huang Photo).
(LEXINGTON, Ky.) – Most sports fans love an occasional juicy quarterback controversy. How about, then, a point guard controversy? Not since the days of Saul Smith has Kentucky Basketball experienced the vitriol and venom currently coming Sahvir Wheeler’s way.
Smith, if you remember, was the son of then UK coach Tubby Smith. Arguably, Saul had decent point-guard skills, but many passionate UK fans thought he just wasn’t a Kentucky caliber point guard. Not only did he take up a valuable slot on the roster, but his presence alone discouraged other more talented point guards from even considering the Wildcats.
The taunts and jeers directed toward Saul by opposing fans in hostile road venues were downright legendary (and not fit to print). That shouldn’t really surprise anyone. What really was surprising were the insults and epithets hurled at Saul by supposedly loyal UK fans.
Wheeler, for those who haven’t guessed, is the current starting point guard for the No. 13-ranked Kentucky Wildcats. A transfer from Georgia—playing in his second season for Coach John Calipari—Wheeler led the Southeastern Conference in assists for the past two years in a row. Listed at 5-9 and 180 pounds, the senior from Houston, Texas, has the necessary skills to thrive at the collegiate level. His statistical accomplishments thus far speak for themselves.
I’m not saying the level of disgruntlement with Wheeler is approaching anything like it was with Smith during his playing days twenty years earlier. But with the advent of social media, the naysayers are louder, they’re just as insensitive, and everyone seems more vicious than ever.
The rumblings started last year on the trip to Notre Dame. Wheeler played 29 minutes but had as many turnovers (2) as he did assists in Kentucky’s disappointing 66 – 62 upset loss. Left wide open as the game wound down, Wheeler missed all five of his attempts from the field (0 – 2 from behind the arc). To add insult to injury, Irish players in the postgame interviews disclosed the game plan was to let Wheeler take open shots because they knew he couldn’t make them.
Ouch! That’s not good.
The discord with Wheeler escalated throughout the year and reached a peak during Kentucky’s shocking defeat to Saint Peter’s in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Wheeler and his teammates acted as if they had never played the game. Rushed shots, turnovers, and missed free throws (one a near air ball) with the game on the line led to one of the worst moments in the storied program’s history. Once again, the questions arose about whether Wheeler could hit open shots, make split-second decisions, and lead the team in crunch time.
Enter, this season, Cason Wallace. The 6-4 freshman guard—also from the Lone Star state—has superstar written all over him. Blessed with a maturity beyond his years, and the athletic size and skills to match, Wallace landed in Calipari’s starting lineup with both guns blazing. Although playing off the ball with Wheeler on the court, the silky-smooth Wallace’s shot-making (53% FG, 52% on 3-pointers), ball-handling, and defensive wizardry (22 steals) had people clamoring for him to immediately wrestle the point guard duties away from Wheeler.
Meanwhile, missed open shots (39% FG, 32% 3-pointers), bricked free throws (59%), out-of-control turnovers (15), and a lingering knee injury continued to plague Wheeler during the first nine games of this regular season. In the most recent contest versus Yale, he took more shots (14) than Wallace, Antonio Reeves, and CJ Fredrick—Kentucky’s designated dead-eye shooting trio—combined. Worst yet, Wheeler seemed constantly rushed, pounding the ball well into the shot clock and having to throw up prayer after prayer before time would ultimately expire. Through it all, he only registered one lonely assist.
Scroll through any social media timeline, website commentary, or message board posting, and I’ll guarantee you’ll find a post or two eviscerating Wheeler. To be honest, I’m somewhat embarrassed reading through the stench. He’s a college student for God’s sake. It’s hard enough suffering through daily Calipari tirades in practice. How difficult must it be to endure all this additional mindless drivel from the peanut gallery as well?
Well, it turns out that Sahvir Wheeler is a bigger man than those who are trying to tear him down. I asked him recently how he deals with the constant negativity surrounding his play and about the alleged point-guard controversy brewing among fans and media.
“I think that’s you guys,” he said disarmingly with a smile on his face. “That’s a lot of the media. I’ve never had any friction [with Wallace]. Even last year there were people who said there was friction with TyTy [Washington]. That’s never the case. When there’s a dead ball, I get it. Sometimes, when there’s a rebound, I just run, and Cason has it. I think we just naturally feed off each other that way. We have two aggressive, down-hill guards who defend on both ends.”
That’s truth speaking. Whenever I’m asked about whether I think Wheeler or Wallace should be the point guard, my answer is always, “Yes.” I think Kentucky needs both at peak efficiency to make a run at a ninth national title this year. Let’s face it, we all thought this team would be full of long, athletic, and skilled players running, dunking, and blocking opponents’ shots. We also envisioned shot makers who could fill it up from the perimeter. The team needs Wheeler’s speed to generate all those transition buckets. They also need his passing skills getting the ball into the shooters’ hands.
The stagnant UK offense we’ve seen thus far isn’t entirely Wheeler’s fault. Neither is dribbling out the shot clock and then driving the lane out of desperation. That’s a coaching issue, and one that we all assume Calipari will iron out with Wheeler by March. Remember, Calipari is the Hall of Fame coach making nine million dollars a year. Berating Wheeler privately and banishing him to the bench should be left in his capable hands—not ours.
Plus, Wheeler is smart enough to ignore all the chatter. He’s got a personal Instagram account he uses to deal with NIL. But other than that, all your insults are like water off a duck’s back to him.
“If you guys are saying some great stuff, I have no idea,” he readily acknowledged. “If you guys are killing me, I have no idea. It’s been good. I love the fans. I know the fans who are at the games, they come up to me and show me love. It’s been pretty awesome so far this year.”
I’m not sure I believe Wheeler. After all, he’s only human. I’m sure some of the things he hears is bound to leak through and upset him—especially when it gets personal. But Wheeler’s response and attitude is exactly the resiliency I want in my point guard. The guy’s tough as nails. He has a huge heart. He realizes what it takes to be a winner. With a little more guidance from his coach, the negative chatter should readily subside.
“That’s part of it,” Wheeler willingly conceded. “If you’re not doing anything right, you won’t have anyone hating on you. It’s all part of it. I’ve learned to embrace it, enjoy it, to keep learning and keep on winning.”
Sounds like a guy who has his act together. I wouldn’t worry about him one iota. In the end, Sahvir Wheeler doesn’t care what you or I think. In the game of life, he doesn’t need any of us to set him free.
Dr. John Huang is a UK columnist for Nolan Group Media and editor-in-chief of JustTheCats.com. He also covers the NFL and MLB for Sports View America. You can follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs. If you enjoy his writing, be sure to check out his new book, KENTUCKY PASSION. https://www.amazon.com/Kentucky-Passion-Wildcat-Wisdom-Inspiration/dp/1684351669