Before he was a Cougar, he was a Volunteer.
And a Mule.
And, um, a Volunteer again.
And also a Titan.
“It’s been crazy,” Connor Wheeler chuckled.
Rarely is college your classic straight line, A to B. The path for Wheeler, a senior guard with Southern Illinois-Edwardsville, reads more like a guitar tab: A to G to C to G to B, a journey comprising five seasons, four different schools, three (at least) fractured shins, two medical redshirts, and two Final Fours.
So, yeah: Crazy. A bit.
“I’m where I wanted to be,” said Wheeler, whose Cougars host Belmont at 9 p.m. ET Wednesday in an Ohio Valley Conference game on ASN. “The road wasn’t necessarily one that is taken or one you see very often, but at the end of the day, I made it here. So I’m pretty happy to be here.”
The Google map starts at Division III Illinois Wesleyan in Bloomington, where he played just two games with the Titans in 2011-’12 before suffering stress fractures in both shins, “which was rough for me, first year away from home and everything,” Wheeler recalled.
Rough and bittersweet: While Wheeler took a medical redshirt, Wesleyan reached the national semifinals. And the more Connor stepped back from the situation, the more he felt like stepping away.
“After a year at Division III, (where) they don’t have athletic scholarships, I really had aspirations (of moving up),” Wheeler recalled. “I thought I could play at higher levels. I didn’t want that (financial) burden on my family.”
So he transferred closer to home, to John A. Logan (Community) College, seven-ish miles east of his native Carbondale, Ill., averaging 8.6 points and 4.4 assists as a freshman in ’12-’13 in a stop before landing at what he figured would be his final collegiate stop: Central Missouri.
The Division II Mules were loaded under then-coach Kim Anderson in ’13-’14. But a fortnight before the start of the regular season season, Wheeler’s left leg started flaring up again. Another stress fracture. Another medical redshirt.
“It just kind of recurred (from) playing on it, playing a lot,” Wheeler recalled. “It was one of those things that just happened: Shin pain that turned into a stress fracture.”
And the déjà vu kept coming: As Wheeler rehabbed, the Mules took off, winning the national title. Anderson eventually took off, too, taking the job at Missouri, his alma mater, and bringing one of Connor’s confidants, assistant Brad Loos, along with him.
“And I had fully planned on coming back and playing the rest of my career there,” Wheeler said of the Warrensburg, Mo., campus. “Toward the middle of June, I got a call from the new coach — which is funny, because I went to his news conference and everything — and I got a call that they were going to pull my scholarship because they didn’t think I was healthy enough to play.”
Stunned, Wheeler considered his options. He called his old coach at Logan, Kyle Smithpeters, to seek counsel. Smithpeters would actually go one better, offering him a roster spot back with the Volunteers, providing a way station again.
“But everything worked out for the best,” said Wheeler, who led Logan in assists per game (3.3) in ’14-’15. “I couldn’t be more happy with where I was at, because when it happened, I had no idea I could go back to John A. Logan. That just sort of happened. It just fell back into place, I guess.”
Other pieces finally started lining up, too. Connor’s dad, Wendell, was a venerated high school coach in the area; the younger Wheeler grew up around the Southern Illinois program during its salad days under Bruce Weber, Matt Painter, and Chris Lowery. When one of the Salukis’ best, Kent Williams, joined new Edwardsville coach Jon Harris’ staff, he re-connected with Connor.
“I knew right away that was where I wanted to be,” Wheeler said of the Cougars. “And after I met Coach Harris, I knew that playing for him and Coach Williams, this was the place I wanted to be. I always had dreams of playing Division I basketball and I really thought that I could do that. It was really a dream come true to be able to do that.”
And the dream keeps rolling: Connor hit one of 10 SIUE three-pointers back on December 9 that helped lift the Cougars to a 76-74 upset of the Salukis in Carbondale.
Sometimes, it’s about the destination as much as the journey.
“Never burn a bridge,” Wheeler said, chuckling again. “Go to the best spot for you; don’t get caught up in, ‘Oh, this is the biggest school that’s recruiting me.’ They might be the biggest school recruiting you but they’re not the best fit for you. If you trust in yourself, believe in yourself and work hard, you’ll end up where you’re supposed to be.”