On Tuesday, Jan. 4, just over three and a half minutes into a ranked matchup between Kentucky and LSU in Baton Rouge, all of Big Blue Nation held its breath.
Kentucky starting point guard Sahvir Wheeler hit the ground after running into a hard screen set by LSU center Efton Reid. Wheeler would remain down for multiple minutes, eventually being helped off the court and taken back to the locker room, unable to return for the rest of the game.
UK guards TyTy Washington Jr and Davion Mintz would take over the point guard duties for the remainder of the game, as the Wildcats had to learn how to operate without their floor general on the fly.
Washington would also leave the game late in the second half due to cramps, leaving Mintz and combo guard Kellan Grady with the ball-handling responsibilities.
The hostile road environment and unusual lineups plagued Kentucky, as the Wildcats would ultimately fall to LSU, 65-60.
Wheeler was diagnosed with a “neck injury” that would keep the Georgia transfer out of Kentucky’s following two games against his former school and Vanderbilt.
"(Wheeler) is the engine to our car, if you will," Grady said after the LSU game. "He’s the guy that’s able to really orchestrate our offense and control the game and get us out in transition.”
Kentucky would return home to prepare for a weekend matchup with the struggling Georgia Bulldogs, giving UK head coach John Calipari some time to find a new engine for the Wildcat mobile.
As it turns out, Washington Jr may have been the perfect engine for the car all along.
17 assists by the freshman guard out of Phoenix against the Bulldogs broke a single-game Kentucky record, previously held by UK legend John Wall.
Washington was also able to record 17 points against UGA in UK’s 92-77 victory, answering any questions about what the Cats were going to do without Wheeler.
In the Wildcats’ following game against Vanderbilt, Washington stuffed the stat sheet yet again.Compiling 15 points, four assists, four rebounds, a steal and a block, Washington helped Kentucky earn its first road win of the season, defeating the Commodores 78-66 in Nashville.
While Washington earned the spotlight in his new role at PG, Davion Mintz’s impact greatly increased for the Cats as well.
Five 3-pointers against Georgia helped the graduate student drop 19 points off the bench in 30 minutes of playing time.
Mintz would enter the starting lineup on Tuesday against Vanderbilt, scoring nine points to go along with a pair of assists and rebounds.
Despite being down Wheeler, Kentucky’s offense has not missed a beat in back-to-back games, defeating two conference foes handily.
Having to learn to adjust without Wheeler will only benefit Kentucky moving forward.
While it isn’t an adjustment Calipari will hope to make on a regular basis, Washington and Mintz have proven that the Wildcat offense can stay up to speed without Wheeler.
Through 16 games, Kentucky averages 82.6 points per game, the 11thbest average in the country. While Wheeler’s 9.6 points per game contribute to that high total, his nation leading 7.3 assists per game means much more to the Cats reaching that 80-point threshold.
In UK’s two games without Wheeler, the Cats put up 92 and 78 points, respectively.
Yes, Oscar Tshiebwe’s back-to-back career-highs in points play a large part in the Kentucky offense, but the production from the Wildcat backcourt hasn’t slowed down.
Washington likely won’t come near another 17-assist game during his time in Lexington, but the newly dubbed “PG1” is a near shoe-in for double-figures in the scoring column, something you cannot say about Wheeler.
The best of both worlds meets when Wheeler and Washington are on the court together, but the past two games have shone a light on a viable option that Calipari can rely on in the future if Wheeler is not on the court.
Wheeler remains listed as “day-to-day" and the possibility of his return this Saturday against Tennessee is still up in the air.