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By LARRY VAUGHT
MIDDLETOWN, Ohio — He was a Final Four MVP on a national championship team at Kentucky, still lives in the state and supports the UK basketball program any way he can.
Yet Jeff Sheppard admitted Saturday at the Ohio UK Convention that he didn’t think Kentucky’s inexperienced team could win the 2014 national championship.
“I am 100 percent for UK and the program and want them to win all their games and win a national championship, but I am not going to predict that. I am going to predict they will not be as bad as last year. I just don’t believe that a team this young can win a national championship,” said Sheppard. “I hope this year’s team proves me wrong. Maybe the talent level will be so much greater that I will be proven wrong, and I hope that I am. All I can do is speak from my experience, and that experience gave us such an advantage when we were playing.”
Kentucky returns three players — senior Jarrod Polson and sophomores Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein — with extended experience off last year’s NIT team to go with eight signees, including six McDonald’s All-Americans.
Sheppard was on UK’s 1995 team that lost to North Carolina in the Elite Eight — “and we should not only have won that game but the whole tournament,” said Sheppard. He was on UK’s multi-talented 1996 national championship team and a redshirt on the 1997 team that lost to Arizona in overtime in the NCAA title game. He led UK to the national title in 1998 as a senior and then watched in 1999 when many of his former teammates lost to Michigan State in the Elite Eight.
“The Final Four atmosphere is different,” Sheppard said to defend his stance on UK’s lack of experience. “There is just something different about playing in a Final Four. If you have never played in the NCAA Tournament, that is a real disadvantage no matter what team or coach you play for. There are arguments against that, but I just believe NCAA playing experience is very valuable.
“A lot of players on those great Kentucky teams I was on had a lot of experience. When we showed up at the Final Four we were not celebrating just being at the Final Four. We were there to finish the last third of the NCAA. A lot of teams when they make the Final Four it is almost like they won the championship itself. If you are a first-year player and make it to Final Four, that is a very dangerous trap to fall into thinking we have won the championship already and not finish the last two games strong.”
Sheppard said UK coach John Calipari is “doing a great job playing the game he has to play now” with so many players leaving UK early for the NBA draft — 17 overall draft picks in the last four years and only two were seniors.
“You get great players on campus and then they are out of here,” Sheppard said. “It is a shame because Kentucky fan loves to know the player on the court but also off the court. What I learned during my career, and especially after, is the love fans have for the individual. You know things about me most fans don’t know about players. You want to get to know those players and follow them and see what they do and how they develop. All those things that you have traditionally been able to follow and build on has changed.
“I don’t like it. I don’t think the Kentucky fan overall likes it. We have had to accept because it is working. We have won a national championship, and that’s the way it is. I wish the NCAA or NBA would put in policies to change that. I think would make college basketball stronger.
“I don’t know how coach Calipari gets his guys together in such a short time. When adversity comes if you are really not a closely knit group, it can bust it up quickly. The individuals try to take over instead of letting the team take over. The neat thing about being part of a team is understanding how important that role is and sticking to it.”
Sheppard knows not every UK fan will feel the same as him and emphasized he meant no disrespect to Calipari for the “phenomenal” job he’s done at Kentucky.
“I don’t want to take away from the run coach Calipari has had at Kentucky. It has been phenomenal,” Sheppard said.
But here comes the old-school in Sheppard, a five-year player.
“I think too much emphasis is put on celebrating first-round draft picks. I would rather celebrate national championships,” Sheppard said. “But that is where the high school athlete is. To recruit, you have got to show a track record of putting players into the NBA. I am all for that as long as it is the by-product of team performing well and the team succeeding.
“I think it is a dangerous time when putting players in the NBA is put ahead of team success. We as Kentucky fans are not as excited about the draft as people think. We want our boys to do well, but we would rather our boys win national championships.”