Question: What do you get when you cross jaw-dropping talent with an unbridled enthusiasm for the sport of basketball?
Answer: Amber Wheeler.
Wheeler, a former All-State standout for the Alton Lady Comets, wrapped up her sophomore year at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar this season by being named a fourth-team NCAA Division II All-American player.
Anyone who has seen Wheeler take the court is aware of her offensive prowess, but according to SBU Head Coach Jim Middleton, the real reason for Wheeler's success lies deeper than the ability to score from any spot on the hardwood.
"She just absolutely loves to play basketball," he said. "She has a tremendous passion for the sport that you don't find in every player. The gym is her environment, and she loves to be there and thrives there."
During his decade-plus tenure at the helm of the Lady Bearcats, Middleton has coached two previous All-Americans, and could see during Wheeler's freshman year at SBU that he had a special talent.
"During her freshman year, she really came on at the end and became our go-to player, and that's unheard of at our level (NCAA Division II)," said Middleton. "And going into her sophomore year, there was no doubt who our go-to player was. She gave us an opportunity to win whenever we took the court."
Befitting of a player who earns All-American honors, Wheeler posted impressive numbers in leading the Lady Bearcats to a 14-14 overall mark last year, 6-12 in the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletic Association ranks, where she was also named MVP.
Scoring at a 17-point-per-game clip (second in the MIAA), Wheeler led the league in 3-point field goals made (2.64 per game), finished fourth in free throw percentage (.823), sixth in 3-point field goal percentage (.368) and seventh in field goal percentage.
Adding another notch to her reputation as a prolific scorer, Wheeler broke the MIAA Tournament single-game mark, and set an SBU record by tossing in 37 points in the first round of this year's tourney against Emporia State. This performance earned Wheeler a spot on the All-Tournament team.
After being named to the NCAA Division II Freshman All-American squad after her first year in Bolivar, Wheeler was tabbed as a Super 16 preseason All-American going into her second campaign at SBU.
As outstanding as she is on the hardwood, Wheeler is also tough in the classroom, landing on the MIAA Commissioner's Academic Honor Roll for 2003-04, after making the Academic All-MIAA team as a freshman.
"It's not surprising that she's a good student also," Middleton said. "She has a lot of confidence in her abilities on and off the court. She's just a good person, and her parents are wonderful people as well."
Although his squad finished this past year at .500, Middleton expects bigger things for the Lady Bearcats next season.
"We played a ton of close games last year," he said. "Every coach is optimistic heading into a new season, but I really believe we'll be improved next year."
Part of this improvement lies in what should prove to be a deeper rotation for the Lady Bearcats next season.
"We'll definitely have more depth next year. We should be at least two deep at every spot, which we haven't been in a while," Middleton said. "We like to play an up-tempo style on both sides of the court, and to be able to do that you need to have some quickness. I think we addressed that in our recruiting this year and lack of depth and quickness shouldn't be an issue for us next year."
Another non-issue for Middleton and the Lady Bearcats next year should be the way Wheeler attacks her down-time this off-season.
"Amber's the kind of player who doesn't mind going to the gym alone to work on her individual game," Middleton said. "She's one of those players that you just can't get out of the gym. I'm sure she's somewhere right now getting ready for next season."