By: Jackson Patterson
MTN Sports Reporter
It is not often the top scorer of any conference in any sport leaves their place of comfort the very next season. But for senior guard Savannah Wheeler, that is the next start of a new chapter in her life. Wheeler spent the first three years of her college career playing for Marshall University, where she thrived and tormented the Middle Tennessee State University Blue Raiders. However, she entered the transfer portal after her junior season and is now playing for her long-time conference rival.
As previously stated, Wheeler thrived at Marshall. During her freshman season in 2019-2020, she made the Conference-USA All Freshman team. It kept getting better for her after that, as she made the C-USA Second Team All-Conference following her sophomore season and the C-USA First Team All-Conference following her junior season, the season in which she led all of C-USA in scoring. But now she looks to continue that success elsewhere, with her new school and team, the Blue Raiders.
Anytime a player is thriving in their college career would make one think that they are content with where they are at. Things are clicking, the team is winning, and the players get comfortable and used to the campus and schedules they create. But for Wheeler, this was not enough. She described her reasons for entering the transfer portal and what motivated her to look for a change, saying she wanted more with where she was at in her career.
“It’s not that I hated the university. I loved Marshall and am very thankful for all the people there,” said Wheeler. “It was a great three seasons there. But I just felt like I wanted a change for myself. We made it to the conference tournament three times. We won the first round my freshman year, but when Covid hit we couldn’t play the second round. We got beat in the first round my sophomore year and we got beat in the first round this past year. So, I kind of knew then, after we got beat, that I felt like I wanted more. I just wanted to a part of something special. This team here has great success, great support system for women’s basketball, and I was wanting more of that aspect to my basketball career.”
She further explained that she entered the transfer portal right after Marshall’s loss in the C-USA tournament, which began the stresses of finding a new school and a new team. But in that stress and worry, she always had MTSU on her mind since she played against them for her first three seasons and saw their successes when Marshall and MTSU were conference rivals during her time at Marshall.
“I had a lot of talks with my family about it, but with the support of them, they made it a little bit easier. I felt like I wanted to see myself making an impact on a team and where I would see myself playing. Of course, playing against Middle Tennessee for three years and seeing all the success that they’ve had helped. They won the conference tournament my sophomore year and then they make it to the semifinals of the WNIT last year. That was my first thought and when it came down to it, I felt like this was the best fit for me overall,” she said.
One of the other main influences of why she chose MTSU was because of the experience and knowledge of the coaching staff. On top of this, with her being from Kentucky, she also wanted to stay relatively close to home, and that also was one of her main influences in her decision.
“The knowledge that the coaches here have for the game of basketball is very impressive. My family also influenced me to come here but I think the coaches were the main reason. But I also knew I didn’t want to go too far away from home. I was 20 minutes from Marshall, so that was really nothing for me with it being right on the border line. Here, its not too far of a drive. Its about five hours. My sister is thankfully a little bit closer to here, about two and a half hours, so that was another decision factor for me. Here I can be a little bit closer to them because when I lived at home they were farther away, about three and a half hours. But here I can be closer to my niece and my six-month-old nephew,” said Wheeler.
Now that she is here and is getting familiar with coach Insell’s system and the team, she described what learning her new role is like and what contributing to the team will be like for her now. She further explained that she is adapting to this new environment, specifically on how she is learning to be more of a vocalizer on the team and stepping up in a leadership role.
“I wasn’t very vocal at my last school so right here I am kind of learning the role of being a leader, being more vocal, communicating on the floor and I think it is very beneficial for me especially right now since I have this year and next year, to get in a rhythm of it because I potentially want to be a coach someday. So, learning it from great coaches here is going to help me tremendously. A lot of my game is getting to the free throw line and getting penetration and knocking down open shots, but ultimately, I am just trying to play the game and help the team win,” said Wheeler.
One of the things that Wheeler noticed right away out of her new teammates was the comradery and chemistry they had with each other. When she arrived at MTSU over the summer, she felt like she had to adapt to them and their system, but once she did, she feels like she is one of them has loved getting to know them and compete with them. Because of this, that drives her to be a better player and teammate.
“The chemistry took a little while because I had to adapt to the offense here so that aspect has to click along with the chemistry, but I played against them for three years, so I know how a lot of them play. But the love that the girls here have and the passion they have for the game, it makes the game more fun whenever you are playing around girls that have the same goal as you. I think that is very important and it helps you on the court but also in outside life as well. So, just being around positive people who also enjoy playing the game that you love and making friendships and memories makes me can’t wait for when we start,” she said as her final thoughts.
As Wheeler mentioned, the success of the team and the knowledge of the coaching staff will make one raise an eyebrow at how impressive their reputation is, all under the guidance of head coach, Rick Insell. Insell has been with MTSU since 2005 and has created himself an impressive stat sheet. Among his successes in his tenure with the Blue Raiders are three-time award winner of Coach of the Year, a 405-146 win/loss ratio, and has led his team to 16 postseason births, including ten of them in the NCAA tournament.
When someone of coach Insell’s reputation sees a player like Wheeler in the transfer portal, that tends to be a match made in heaven. Insell and his staff were obviously extremely familiar with Wheeler’s style of play after playing against her for three seasons, and therefore they knew a roster spot had to open for her. The team had lost one of their top scorers from last year, Dor Saar, due to her having to go back home to Israel and put in her required two years of military service. Therefore, Insell and his staff were looking to find a replacement for that offensive production. Insell described what it was like upon hearing the news that the leading scorer in the conference was up for grabs.
“She’s a winner, and as a coach you recognize winners,” said Insell. “She had some success against us when she was a freshman. Then when we played her here as a sophomore, she didn’t have a real good game. You could tell after the game that it absolutely destroyed her. She was really down. I remember going out with my coaching staff that night after the game to get something to eat, and I told them, ‘That Wheeler kid, she’s a winner. She didn’t have a good game, but she is definitely a winner.’ And they all agreed. We didn’t think she would ever enter the portal because she was an icon up there. I had just got here one morning, and I think Matt (Insell’s son and Associate Head Coach for the team) was in the auxiliary gym working out one of our players, and Kim (Brewton, an assistant coach for the team) came in and said, ‘hey, Wheeler just went in the portal.’ And she had just went in. It was like 7:30 in the morning and I immediately called Matt, and within five minutes he was on the phone with her dad. Then we got her in here for a visit pretty quick for a visit, I think within a week or two. It was a no brainer.”
For any team and coaching staff, it is always a comfort knowing that a player with Wheeler’s skills is now a part of the team. But her talent on the court was not the only thing that caught the attention of Insell and his staff. Insell explained that she has certain characteristics that any coach would want on his team, specifically about how she puts her team first above all else.
“Of course, you didn’t think you were ever going to get her, because like I said, she was an icon up at Marshall. There’s pictures of her all over the wall and everything. The one thing that I saw, like I said, is she is just a winner. She plays hard and she played until she just gave out. One of the things that had happened last year, we had gone to Old Dominion, and I thought that they probably had the best team in our conference. I thought they were bigger, stronger, and more experienced. We got beat by them up there by one I believe. Then she goes in there about two weeks after that with her Marshall team, and she gets like 37 points and beats them by like 12 or 15 points, maybe even 20. And I saw that, and I talked about that with my coaches. She basically took her team in there on her back and won the game. So, that was in the back of our mind, and I never thought she would go in the portal,” he said.
One of the unique things about Wheeler now being on MTSU’s team is the difference in game plans and strategies for coach Insell. For the past three seasons, he would have to create a defensive plan against her. But now, he has the comfort of creating offensive plans that are for her and can revolve around her. As he watched her play over the past three years, he described the only thought that would run through his mind was how his team is going to stop her. Now he has the luxury of wondering the same thing for any team they play.
“The only thing that ever crossed my mind was, ‘how are we going to defend her?’,” said Insell. “We could not stop her with one person. We had Lex (Alexis Whittington) guarding her which was our best defensive player and we had to give Lex help all over the floor anytime that she (Wheeler) got the ball. We were shading her to make sure we weren’t giving her any penetration lanes and hopefully get a hand on the shot. She posed a lot of challenges for us defensively. Let’s hope she does that this year to other teams.”
Insell went on to say how thrilled he is to have her on his team, and how he has seen her come to fit in with the other players. He had nothing but positive things to say about her and believes she will be a great contributor once their games begin and believes she will help in continuing the success of the team.
“She loves it, and we love her. She fits in great with our team. I see our other players rallying around her and I see her rallying around our other players. Everything I see right now is a positive. We’ll start playing soon and I don’t see any changes in that at all. She is not like Dor, but yet she is like Dor. Dor was not only a great shooter, she was a great leader. And then you bring in Savannah, she is a great shooter and a great slasher, and I think before we get to Christmas you are going to see a lot of her leadership skills come to the forefront too. I have been blessed to be able to have the guards like Dor, like Courtney Blakely, like Savannah Wheeler here for the last two to three years. We have to take advantage of that. You’re not going to advance in the tournament unless you’ve got good guards, and we’ve got some good guards and we have got to build on that,” said Insell as his parting thoughts.