Sahvir Wheeler has been looking forward to the UCLA game for months. For good reason.

Back in the preseason, Sahvir Wheeler was asked if there was any particular opponent on Kentucky’s 2022-23 schedule that he was looking forward to playing.

While Wheeler noted that competing against the best of the best on a regular basis was a primary reason he decided to come to UK, he declined to elevate any one game over the rest.

“I don’t really get into that,” Wheeler said.

With one exception.

“The only place I’m looking forward to is getting back to Madison Square Garden — not because of the opponent — just because of the venue,” the Wildcats’ point guard continued.

That game is now just a few days away. The opponent is UCLA — just the second ranked foe the Wildcats will play this season — and, no matter how Wheeler worded it in that preseason interview, that does matter. Obviously, Saturday’s opponent makes this a big game, the UK senior acknowledged over the weekend. The Cats are still looking for their first victory over a ranked team. And this game will pit Wheeler against UCLA playmaker Tyger Campbell, who boasts the reputation as one of the best point guards in the country.

“I’ll say this every time you guys ask — that’s the reason why I came here, is to play against the best. To be coached by the best. And to play with the best,” he told the Herald-Leader. “So, from that aspect, that’s why I love it.”

But the bright lights of Madison Square Garden will make this one matter even more. That’s true for any basketball player lucky enough to play in the “World’s Most Famous Arena,” but, in Wheeler’s case, stepping foot on that court is extra special.

The 5-foot-9 point guard has Houston listed as his hometown on UK’s official roster. He spent much of his childhood in Texas, and he led Houston Christian to two state championships there.

“But I’m from New York,” Wheeler made clear Saturday. “I’m from Harlem, New York.”

He was born in the Big Apple and spent the first eight years of his life in Harlem, and that’s the place he fell in love with the game of basketball. He’s a Knicks fan. “And a Yankees fan. And a Giants fan. And a Rangers fan,” he said, confirming his New York bonafides.

Wheeler grew up watching his father compete around the city, including at Harlem’s Rucker Park — the world’s most famous outdoor court. From about the time he could stand and hold a basketball, he was off to the side emulating what he was seeing. Those courts are also where Wheeler’s father taught him the game. It’s where the Kentucky guard’s career truly began.

So, even though it’s been nearly 15 years since Wheeler called New York home, this weekend’s trip is a homecoming of sorts. And the college senior who turns 22 next month speaks of the opportunity with the same giddiness he surely had when he was first learning to play as a kid.

“All of my family is there,” Wheeler said of returning home. “I’m excited to see them. I haven’t seen them since last year, and some of them that are probably going to come — I haven’t seen them in an even longer time than that. So I think that’s the thing I’m most excited for.

“And, obviously, it’s Madison Square Garden. It’s the best venue to play in in the world. That energy — to feel that energy again, to be out there, play in front of fans who genuinely love basketball. Here in Kentucky, they love it. But in New York, it’s a different level. And I’m super excited for that opportunity and can’t wait to get out there and compete.”

Kentucky guard Sahvir Wheeler smiles after scoring and drawing a foul against the Yale Bulldogs on Saturday.
Kentucky guard Sahvir Wheeler smiles after scoring and drawing a foul against the Yale Bulldogs on Saturday.

This will be Wheeler’s second chance at an MSG memory.

Last year, Kentucky opened its season there. Wheeler’s first game as a Wildcat came in the arena he’d always wanted to play in. It was a mixed bag for the point guard — 16 points and 10 assists, but also seven turnovers and nine missed shots on 15 attempts. Most importantly, his new team lost the game. Duke defeated Kentucky, 79-71, on that November night.

He’s obviously hoping for a different outcome Saturday.

The return trip to New York will also give Wheeler a second chance at event management.

Last year, he was so excited about the game — and friends and family in NYC were so excited to see him play — that the ticket situation quickly got out of hand.

“I’m telling all of my family members, like, ‘Yeah, come. Come on. I got tickets for you. I got tickets for you,’” he recalled.

Then, as the game got closer — and Wheeler started to realize that he had a few other teammates with roots in New York and nearby cities — things got dicey. He started to assign his allotted tickets and realized the demand outweighed the supply.

“I’m like, ‘Yo, I have no tickets!’” Wheeler said.

To make sure he kept all of his promises, Wheeler went into his own pocket. He bought tickets himself, he said, adding that he never told that to some of his family members, who he figured would only learn about it now.

“But they all sat front row, right under the hoop. Thank God for NIL,” Wheeler said with a laugh.

With a second chance coming up Saturday night, he hopes everyone leaves MSG a little happier.

“I just want to go out there and go to Madison Square Garden and win a game there. That’s it.”

Saturday

No. 13 Kentucky vs. No. 16 UCLA

What: CBS Sports Classic

Where: Madison Square Garden in New York City

When: About 5:15 p.m.

TV: CBS-27

Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1

Records: Kentucky 7-2, UCLA 8-2

Series: Kentucky leads 8-7.

Last meeting: UCLA won 83-75 on Dec. 23, 2017, at the CBS Sports Classic in New Orleans.

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