Sahvir Wheeler has twice run blindly into screens while trying to disrupt the opponent bringing the ball upcourt this season.
The first — at LSU on Jan. 4 — caused a neck injury that sidelined Kentucky’s point guard for two games. The second — at Auburn on Saturday — removed him from the game long enough to make what teammate Jacob Toppin suggested was a telling difference.
“If Sahvir didn’t get hurt, I believe 100 percent we would have won that game,” Toppin said Monday.
Kentucky and Wheeler can expect more of the same going forward, UK associate coach Orlando Antigua said Monday.
“A lot of teams are going to try to do those things because of the way Sahvir plays the ball,” Antigua said. “He spearheads our defense with that kind of pressure. So, we’ve got to do a better job of protecting him.”
With freshman the status of TyTy Washington clouded because he landed an ankle on a teammate coming down from shooting a floater at Auburn, Wheeler’s well-being is all the more important.
ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, who worked the LSU telecast, did not sound surprised that another opponent would set a screen on Wheeler. Not coincidentally, LSU and Auburn both beat Kentucky.
“That’s why they did it,” Bilas said. “If it happens once and it works, somebody will do it again.
“And they’re not trying to hurt him. But if you can get (Wheeler) thinking, maybe it lessens his pressure a little bit.”
Bilas likened it to a pro football team defending the option play. To hit the quarterback, even after he pitches the ball, might disrupt offensive execution as the game continues, he said.
Antigua put the screens set by LSU’s Efton Reid and Auburn’s Walker Kessler in the category of regular X-and-O strategy.
“We do the same thing when teams try to pick us up,” Antigua said. “We try to go and set a screen to give (Wheeler) space, to give him some head room to get downhill.”
When the roles reverse and the Kentucky player is being screened, “we just have to make sure we protect guards by communicating a lot sooner and a lot louder.”
At LSU and Auburn, it was Oscar Tshiebwe’s man who set the picks. Both Bill Raftery, who worked the CBS telecast of the game at Auburn, and Bilas said on air that it was Tshiebwe’s responsibility to warn Wheeler of possible contact.
Former UK All-American Sam Bowie, a self-described “huge, huge fan” of Tshiebwe, said that the responsibility to alert a teammate in those situations falls on the player guarding the screener.
“I was raised where it’s my responsibility to communicate with my teammate,” Bowie said. “Because I’m the eyes for Dirk Minniefield, Dickey Beal, Jim Master.
“I always took a lot of pride in being able to go to a guy like Wheeler and say, look, I’m one of your biggest assets in getting up into somebody. And I’ve got your back. I’ll communicate with you. ‘Pick right! Pick left!’”
Bilas recalled calling out picks as being a source of good nature kidding with his Duke teammates.
“We used to joke about it,” he said. “Our point guard would say, hey, man, you better call those screens out. And I’d go, well, get the ball inside and I will call it out.”
Such humor did not always extend to the opponent setting the screen, Bilas said. “One time I told an opponent, if you do that again, I’m going to lay out your guard.”
Bilas said this responsibility usually falls on someone like Tshiebwe because a big man often inbounds the ball or is slower up the court.
Tshiebwe has been the focus of calls from UK coaches to sprint faster up and down the court. So, he must balance getting back on defense with being in position to call back screens.
“It’s part of just having court awareness and the way we defend the ball,” Antigua said.
After the games at LSU and Auburn, Tshiebwe said he “screamed” a warning of the impending screen. Because of the loud raucous crowds, Wheeler did not hear him, Tshiebwe said.
Bowie advised that the louder the crowd the closer Tshiebwe should get to the screen in order for Wheeler to hear the warning alert.
“He can be literally touching the man that’s setting the pick,” Bowie said.
In working the LSU and Auburn games, Bilas and Raftery said the screens set on Wheeler were within the rules.
Bilas said that judging a screen set so far from the basket in an open-court situation is not a difficult call for referees.
“Officials miss a lot of stuff,” Bilas said. “They don’t miss those. The guy standing there from 10 feet away. All you have to do is run (a player like Wheeler) in there.
“That’s why you call it out. Sahvir Wheeler does not have eyes in the back of his head.”
Mississippi State at No. 12 Kentucky
When: 9 p.m.
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: UK 15-4 (5-2 SEC); Mississippi State 13-5 (4-2)
Series: UK leads 99-21
Last meeting: Mississippi State won 74-73 on March 10, 2021, at the SEC Tournament in Nashville