By LARRY VAUGHT
MIDDLETOWN, Ohio — He was a five-year player at Kentucky under coaches Rick Pitino and Tubby Smith, and Jeff Sheppard was part of two national championship teams and another team that lost in the national title game.
He believes junior to be Kyle Wiltjer has made a mistake by transferring from UK to Gonzaga over a lack of anticipated playing time this season because of coach John Calipari’s recruiting class that includes six McDonald’s All-Americans.
“I hate it. I actually think it is a mistake for Kyle to do it but each one has to make his own decisions,” said Sheppard, who spoke at the Ohio UK Convention here Saturday. “I was really hoping that he would stay and that he would even consider redshirting.”
That’s what Sheppard did in UK’s 1995-96 national championship season. It was his junior year but Pitino knew with UK’s talented roster of future NBA players that an extra year of eligibility could help both UK and the player — kind of like one might argue that a redshirt year at UK could have gone for Wiltjer.
“It is just a great ride at Kentucky,” Sheppard said. “I don’t think his NBA status is going to be helped playing 30 minutes for Gonzaga versus playing 10 minutes for Kentucky.”
Sheppard thinks UK will miss Wiltjer’s experience. He played on UK’s 2012 national championship team and was the Southeastern Conference sixth man of the year last season.
“We really, really need his experience. The experience that we had on the team minus Jarrod Polson is now gone. I just think it is a huge key for NCAA Tournament success is to have experience,” Sheppard said.
Having a player that made 90 3-pointers the last two seasons might have helped UK this year, too. Freshman James Young is a solid outside shooter and twins Andrew and Aaron Harrison both have 3-point range. But none is considered the pure 3-point shooter that Wiltjer has been.
“It changes the team without him and his shooting,” Sheppard said.
Sheppard, the 1998 Final Four MVP, admitted that Wiltjer is a “player kind of like me” in many ways.
“He doesn’t need to be the best player on the court. Last year we tried to make him the best player on the court and tried to make the offense go through him and that didn’t work,” Sheppard said. “The year before when he wasn’t the best player on the court and he could stretch the defense, he gave people fits. That’s what I wonder. Is he going to go to Gonzaga and be a featured guy? I don’t think his game is to be a featured guy.”
Instead, Sheppard thinks Wiltjer would be better suited to look at what another former UK player — Scott Padgett — did to reshape his career. Remember, Padgett was an academic casualty under Pitino and had to return home to Louisville for a semester and was a five-year player. He was also a key to UK’s 1998 national championship.
“Scott was a great shooter but he was gritty and strong and would fight you all the time. He did all the little things and then Scott had a long NBA career and is going to be a great coach one day. He found his niche and then worked to make himself even better,” Sheppard said.
So why does he think Wiltjer, who said he came to UK because of the competition he would face daily, left?
“Part of it is just going through tough times. These kids don’t want to go through tough times any more,” Sheppard said. “They leave (for the NBA) too early. They quit too early. They think it is always brighter on the other side. There are so many life lessons to learn going through adversity, going through the tough times. It is just a different game. We’ll see how it plays out, but I really think he is making a mistake and really hate it for him.”