Calipari’s next challenge: How to integrate Sahvir Wheeler back into Kentucky’s lineup?

Kentucky is rolling once again, owners of a three-game winning streak and, seemingly, a newfound confidence on the basketball court.

Conspicuous by his absence amid the Wildcats’ successful stretch of games over the past week and a half has been Sahvir Wheeler, an all-conference point guard who also happens to be one of the most polarizing UK players in recent memory.

Wheeler missed the Cats’ shocking victory over Tennessee with a back injury. He returned to the court three days later in a win over Georgia, but the 5-foot-9 playmaker came off the bench in that one, seeing just 33 seconds of run after halftime. In a 76-67 win over Texas A&M on Saturday afternoon, a similar story: Wheeler started the game on the bench, played some quality minutes in the first half, then saw less than a minute on the court after halftime.

Meanwhile, freshman guard Cason Wallace has been seeing more time at the point, and Coach John Calipari has finally deployed a lineup that Kentucky fans have been thirsting for all season: playing Wallace alongside shooting guards CJ Fredrick and Antonio Reeves, with Jacob Toppin and reigning national player of the year Oscar Tshiebwe manning the frontcourt.

It’s a group that sounds good in theory — three capable shooters-slash-scorers at the guard spots, the versatile Toppin and the amazing Tshiebwe — and it’s a group that has looked as good as it sounds.

The sample size remains relatively small, but the numbers are difficult to ignore. That lineup has played 72 possessions over the past three games, and those five are outscoring their opponents by 42 points during that time. And Kentucky is 3-0 in that stretch.

Kentucky’s Sahvir Wheeler, left, dribbles the ball around Texas A&M’s Julius Marble during Saturday’s game at Rupp Arena.
Kentucky’s Sahvir Wheeler, left, dribbles the ball around Texas A&M’s Julius Marble during Saturday’s game at Rupp Arena.

So, where does that leave Wheeler?

Last week, it left him on the bench. He played 11 total minutes against Georgia but lasted just 33 seconds in the second half before Calipari pulled him after a bad turnover. He played eight total minutes against Texas A&M but lasted just 57 seconds before the UK coach yanked him again. In both cases, that was it for his second-half action.

But surely that won’t be the way going forward.

Wheeler’s shortcomings are no secret. His questionable decision-making and shot selection often frustrate both fans and his head coach. His size can make him a liability. And, while his outside shooting numbers are up — he’s at 38.5 percent from three-point range this season — defenses are more than happy to give him space on the perimeter. And when those opponents sag, it makes it tough for Tshiebwe to operate in the paint and for other guards to get scoring opportunities for themselves.

All that said, Wheeler is a valuable asset for this Kentucky basketball team. He’s led the Southeastern Conference in assists the past two years (and he’s once again No. 1 in that stat this season). He’s a pest of an on-ball defender, a lightning-quick player in transition and a general disruptor on the court. His assist-to-turnover ratio (2.8) is also the best it has been in his career and top-10 nationally among players with more than 95 assists, believe it or not.

“The reason I like Sahvir — the game is faster and we need to get something up-and-down, I love having him in,” Calipari said Saturday. “… He also mixes it up.”

But, after playing without him in Knoxville, the UK coach clearly hasn’t quite figured out what to do with him now that he has found another lineup that works.

“I’ve also played with off guards at point. They’re just different,” Calipari said of the new group that features Wallace at the point. “In most cases, it gives you one more scorer on the court.”

That has been the case the past three games, and it’s fair to expect Calipari to continue utilizing that five-player group that has worked wonders during this winning streak. It’s also fair to expect that Wheeler will be playing more than a minute in the second half moving forward.

Exactly how to make it all work is the $8.5 million dollar question for Kentucky’s head coach.

Wildcats back Wheeler

Something worth pointing out: While Wallace has helped lead terrific numbers in that Kentucky dream lineup, Wheeler hasn’t really had much of a chance to show what he can do with it.

According to the data at HoopsInsight.com, Calipari has played the Wheeler-Fredrick-Reeves-Toppin-Tshiebwe combo for just 19 possessions all season. Only once (in the first half against Georgia) has that group played more than three possessions in a game.

And Wheeler has played with three-point threats Fredrick and Reeves flanking him for only 90 possessions all season. UK has outscored its opponents by 22 points during that time. Only twice has that trio played more than 15 possessions in a game: they were plus-12 in 16 possessions against Duquesne and plus-6 in 36 possessions against South Carolina (a matchup UK lost by three points). Small sample sizes but positive results.

As Wheeler has sat and watched, his teammates have rallied around him.

Asked last week how important the senior point guard was to this Kentucky squad, Toppin launched into full-on defense mode.

“Really important,” he said. “I know a lot of people are talking bad about him. But this team is nothing without Sahvir. He does a lot for us — whether he’s starting, whether he’s 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 can go out the window. He’s really important to this team, and we need him in order to do something special.”

One reporter noted that it seemed like it was important for Toppin, who delivered the previous quote with conviction, to get the chance to say that. He agreed.

“Yeah, it was,” Toppin said. “The media always tries to put someone against the wall, bring somebody down. And like I said, it can take a toll on somebody’s mental. And a lot of people don’t know what we go through behind the scenes. So I just want to make it aware that he’s really important to this team. And, without him, this team wouldn’t be anything.

“So, I just wanted everyone to know that.”

Freshman forward Chris Livingston echoed that sentiment.

“He’s really important,” he said. “He runs the show. He runs the show for us offensively, and he’s like the head of the snake defensively. So we’re really looking forward to him getting back in the lineup, getting his minutes back up. Because we’re going to need him throughout the course of the season. I’m really looking forward to him being back.”

The next chance for that to happen comes Tuesday night in Nashville, where Kentucky (13-6, 4-3 SEC) plays Vanderbilt (10-9, 3-3) in another test on the road.

Wheeler will go into that one with zero points over Kentucky’s last three games and a total of 90 seconds of second-half playing time across that stretch. Calipari will go into it surely searching for a way to get his veteran point guard more run while also not disrupting the gains this UK team has made in his absence.

With 12 games left in the regular season, it’s another challenge — and perhaps another balancing act — for this Kentucky team to figure out. For the Cats to reach their full potential, it’s a question that will need an answer.

“Sah’s an amazing teammate,” Livingston said. “… He’s a vocal leader. He’s something that we need for this team.”

Tuesday

Kentucky at Vanderbilt

When: 9 p.m.

TV: SEC Network

Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1

Records: Kentucky 13-6 (4-3 SEC), Vanderbilt 10-9 (3-3)

Series: Kentucky leads 154-47

Last meeting: Kentucky won 77-71 on March 11, 2022, at the SEC Tournament in Tampa, Fla.

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