Q & A with "Comeback 'Cat" Jeff Sheppard

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Rings.  That's all that mattered to Jeff Sheppard ... and he's one of only 15 former Wildcats who have earned the right to wear two NCAA National Championship rings.  (Trivia -- Who is the only Wildcat with three NCAA Championships to his name?)

Sheppard, a 6'4" 189 pound jumping-jack out of Peachtree City, Georgia, arrived in Lexington in the summer of 1993.  And in his four seasons of eligibility (he redshirted the '96-'97 season) the 'Cats played 142 games, winning 124 ... that's a staggering 87.3% winning percentage.  UK won the '96 and '98 National Titles in his time in the blue and white, and generally dominated the college basketball world: In Sheppard's four years, UK was an incredible 27-3 in post-season play, and 16-2 in NCAA Tournament games. 

During his senior year in 1998, the "Comeback 'Cats,"as they later became known, rang up 35 victories against only four defeats.  Sheppard led that balanced team with 13.7 points per game, while shooting 44.4% from the field, and 37.6% from three-point range.  He registered 104 assists to only 59 turnovers.

But Sheppard saved his best for the biggest stage, and the brightest lights.  In the last five games of the '98 NCAA Tournament, Sheppard averaged 19.0 points per game.  He made 53.8% of his shots (35-65), and 40.0% (10-25) from beyond the arc.  He totaled 43 points in the two Final Four games, scoring a timely career-high 27 in the overtime victory versus Stanford in the National Semifinal game. 

His considerable efforts in the '98 Tournament were rewarded with him being named to the All-NCAA Region Team, and later being tabbed as the Final Four Most Outstanding Player. 

Sheppard was a true Big Blue leader who made big shots, and won big games.  His career spanned the latest and greatest "Glory Days" of UK basketball history, rendering his time at UK as special ... as special as it gets.

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Jeff about his time in a Kentucky uniform, and his thoughts on today's team:

ASOB: You were a Parade All-America out of high school in Peachtree City, Georgia.  You had the opportunity to play at any number of colleges: Why Kentucky?

Sheppard: "They are one of the few programs that are above everybody else ... UCLA, Duke, North Carolina, Kansas.  The tradition was there and Rick Pitino was on fire at that point.  They didn't have to recruit too hard, I had always had an interest in them."

ASOB: Was your primary recruiter Billy Donovan?

Sheppard: "Yes, Donovan was."

ASOB: Are you two still close?

Sheppard: "Absolutely, I have a great relationship with him.  We don't talk much, but he's a good friend."

ASOB: You redshirted what would have been your senior year in 1997.  Was that your idea, or coach Pitino's?

Sheppard: "It was coach Pitino's idea.  He had Ron Mercer and Derek Anderson at the two-guard.  He wanted to let those guys get to the NBA ..."

"It was his idea, collectively our decision." 

ASOB: You were a freshman in 1994 when UK beat LSU in the "Mardi Gras Miracle"  (UK came back from 31 down in the second half to win the game).  Did you play much in that game, and at what point in the game did the team realize it could actually pull out the victory?

Sheppard: "Yeah, I had a role in getting us 31 down.  Then I sat on the bench and watched my teammates bring us back."

"We didn't think a whole lot when we were playing.  The momentum shifted, and we started taking big chunks out of the lead ... we always believed we could come back."

ASOB: Cameron Mills stated in his book, "A Dream Come True," that it took several games for the players to fully accept Tubby Smith's coaching in his first year at UK in 1998.  Do you hold the same view?

Sheppard: "Absolutely.  There was a new leadership structure in place, and it took time to buy into the new leadership.  We were very confident in  the way Pitino played and coached, so it took some adjustment time, but by February we were able to maximize our potential for the team."

ASOB: Was there any added pressure to win the '96 National Championship, because of the talent level of that team?

Sheppard: "There's pressure on all UK teams.  The '96 team had some added pressure ... there was not going to be a better assembled group of talent than that team, and coach Pitino had the label of best coach to never win a championship."

ASOB: Was there a sense of relief upon winning the Title, ala the 1978 team?

Sheppard: "Yeah, we felt relief, maybe not the same as the 1978 team.  They were very business-like in their approach.  We had a lot of fun, but Pitino was very structured and demanding."  

"We were taught to take risks, relax and shoot shots.  We had the pressure on us to perform, but we had the freedom to take chances and risks.  Even in the NCAA Tournament, we were taught to take more chances and risks."

ASOB: In 1998 Kentucky played Duke in the Elite Eight for the right to go to the Final Four.  In that game you guys found yourselves down 17 points with under 10 minutes remaining in the game -- I thought the momentum changed when Steve Wojciechowski elbowed you in the mouth with about eight minutes left in the game.  Was that the turning point?

Sheppard: "That game was very interesting.  To pinpoint one play as the turning point ... I don't remember it that way.  I remember Cameron Mills and Scott Padgett making some big shots."

"We weren't effected by calls or situations we faced.  We continued to stay focused.  There were incidents that helped momentum, but not a single play that triggered the comeback.  Our attitude and outlook remained the same." 

ASOB: Former UK player Mike Casey had some unflattering comments concerning Billy Gillispie, and the job he's doing.  Do you have any thoughts on that situation?

Sheppard: "I'm not going to throw anybody under the bus.  The position itself (head coach) is very hard to deal with:  Expectations are championships ... we don't care about rebuilding, we don't care about injuries (as an excuse).  We want championships, and that's the way it is."

"When UK doesn't compete people get upset, and things are said.  We see North Carolina catching up on us.  If we don't get to the Final Four it will be the first decade we haven't gone.  When UK doesn't win, people aren't happy." 

ASOB: Do you a comparison between Jodie Meeks' game and Tony Delk?

Sheppard: "I see some comparisons.  It's really hard ... I haven't played against Jodie, and I guarded Tony for three years in practice."

"It's a different attitude now at UK.  In '96 no individual played more than 20-25 minutes per game ... we scored 85 plus points per game and Tony was our leading scorer.  We had so many great individual players, if any of them would have played the type of minutes that Jodie played ..."

"I don't want to take anything away from Jodie, though, he's had a phenomenal year."

ASOB: In your time at UK you never really experienced any "bad times" like UK is going through at the moment, but do you have any advice for the players currently on the team?

Sheppard: "I don't know the atmosphere off the court.  I don't know the type of relationships in the Lodge (Joe B. Hall Wildcat Lodge)."

"I do know that our teams were very close off the court.  It sounds like a given, that teams would be close ... but I don't know how close they are."

"My advice -- become close.  When you're down and not having a good game, that can make a difference."

I want to wish Jeff, and his wife Stacey Reed-Sheppard the best of luck with their business, 15inc. (15inc is a custom apparel company). 

Jeff is also Director of Sales for Wazoosports.com.  They are launching a new sports network with a focus on local sports (high school).  They offer live streaming and on-demand coverage.  This year they covered the 11th, 6th, and 7th regions basketball tournaments, additionally they will also be broadcasting live, via the Internet, the Kentucky Derby Festival Classic on April 11th.

I want to sincerely thank Jeff for taking the time out of his hectic schedule to share some thoughts with us here at A Sea of Blue.  

Congratulations

To the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers! 

They did their best to give the game to Illinois by turning the ball over against the press on seven of eight possessions in the final four minutes (resulting in 11 Illini points), but in the end they sealed the "upset" by making their free throws. 

Up next, Gonzaga.  Anybody think the Zags might pull out the press?

Good luck Tops ...

Thanks for reading, and Go 'Cats!

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