Monday, March 25, 2024

Sheppard has tough call to make

Reed Sheppard joined John Wall (2010) and Anthony Davis (2012) as the only Kentucky players ever to be named the United States Basketball Writers Association Wayman Tisdale National Freshman of the Year.

It was a well deserved honor for the former North Laurel star who had a sensational season that didn’t end the way he wanted when UK lost 80-76 to Oakland in the NCAA Tournament and Sheppard scored only three points on 1-for-5 shooting.

“He had a great year and it was really cool to see what he has accomplished,” Sporting News columnist Mike DeCourcy said. “Hopefully we will see the high school scouting community readjust evaluations so the ability to put the ball in the basket from great distance is valued at the level colleges and NBA value it.  The game is about the shot and he’s a great shooter.”

Sheppard averaged 12.5 points per game but shot an amazing 52.1 percent (75 of 144) from 3-point range. 

“It’s ridiculous he shot over 50 percent from 3. It was ridiculous when he was doing that in January and you just knew it was going to trickle down when conference teams started getting after him but it didn’t,” DeCourcy said. 

“Reed has good size for a point guard and he is not undersized at the two guard. He’s physically strong, has a great basketball background, was a state high school hero and at minimum an A- athlete. Yet he was not a top 20 player in the rankings.”

The 6-3 Sheppard also led UK with 148 assists, the eight most in a single season in UK history. He also led Kentucky with 82 steals, the second most in a single season at UK behind the 87 by Rajon Rondo. He was the first player in UK history to have five steals in three straight games. 

Now Kentucky fans are waiting to see if Sheppard will return to Kentucky for a second season or head to the NBA where he’s been projected as a top five pick in multiple mock drafts and lottery pick in almost every current mock draft.

“It’s a tough call,” DeCourcy said. “To be an exceptional NBA player there are elements he needs to add to his game. He has to decide if he can best develop those elements at Kentucky or in the NBA where he likely will not get on the floor as quickly.

“He has a very high scoring capability. He can still handle the basketball better and is trending to playing point guard at that level and he will have to be more creative with the ball. That is not something he has spent his career developing. He has played point guard very well but guys at the next level are amazing.”

DeCourcy knows Sheppard and his parents, both former college players, have to contemplate if he can make his best progress being a featured player at Kentucky or by being at the next level. He also knows financial considerations could enter the equation. 

“I don’t think he can make a wrong decision but a right decision will depend on what he hears from teams, what his folks decide is prudent. I would not quarrel with what he does either way.”

On his weekly radio show last week, UK coach John Calipari said he had told Sheppard how proud he was of the season he had and handled all the attention he received from fans and media.

“I said, in my mind, it’s two things. His faith. And his family. His family has kept all the junk and clutter away from him. His faith has steadied him,” Calipari said. “And he’s so respected by the players on the team. And there’s no jealousy of him, or anything like that. 
“He’s just good. He’s a terrific player. And there are times, I’m like, ‘Why are you not shooting more?’ But he’s trying to get everybody involved and doing his thing. He’s still the best freshman in the country! Think about that. Just being unselfish. Being a servant leader, which is what he is.”

That’s why Sheppard said he had “not thought about that all” when asked after the Oakland loss about his future. He had focused on Oakland, not next year.

“It sucks losing, but it sucks losing knowing this is the last time you’re playing with this group. This group has been unbelievable,” a visibly emotional Sheppard said after the NCAA loss. :There is no team that has been like this on and off the court. We’re all super close. It’s been a heck of a season and it’s something we’ll never forget. I know I won’t.

“Being able to play at Kentucky and having this special group of guys around me, it’s been an unbelievable season. It sucks it ends like this, but you’ve got to give credit to Oakland and how they played.”

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CBS-TV sports analyst Jay Wright won two national championships during his coaching tenure at Villanova and probably understands the challenges UK coach John Calipari faces better than most.

Wright, though, had a warning for Calipari and Kentucky basketball after the 80-76 loss to Oakland in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, UK’s third straight disappointing NCAA tourney.

"No. 1, personally for (Calipari) he loves Pittsburgh," Wright said on CBS. "He takes pride in being a Pittsburgh guy. So being there in Pittsburgh, this really hurts him personally. I understand and I feel for him. 

“No. 2, the era of taking these young freshmen and trying to play against older players is over. I think he did a phenomenal job with these guys all year getting them to be as successful as they were. You can see they're playing against grown men.”

Wright said Kentucky will have “far better pros” than any player on Oakland or probably most players in the NCAA field.

“But they're not as good college basketball players,” Wright said about UK’s freshmen.  “At this point in their career, they're not as disciplined as the guys from Oakland. It's not (Calipari’s) fault. 

“It's that they're 18-years-old and they're in this era where everyone's telling them how great they are, 'Just show up in college and you're going to win.' It doesn't happen that way. And the more the guys stay in college because of NIL, it's gonna be tougher for young teams like this to be successful."

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Mark Stoops obviously thought he made the right choice when he hired Bush Hamdan as offensive coordinator after Liam Coen left UK for a second time to work in the NFL. However, if Stoops did have any doubts, they certainly went away after UK’s first spring practice session.

“Those pro elements are in there, but he has been in college,” Stoops said when asked about Hamdan for the first time since he hired him. “He’s gone through that with the way to expedite the play calls, the way to get plays off quicker and still have the creativity of what we want to be able to run and play-action pass.

“I think it’s important to keep that balance. With me, I’ve said it for, what, 12 years now: It starts with being physical and being able to run the ball. I don’t think that’s much different in the NFL. Certainly there are teams that throw the ball exceptionally well with very dynamic players and may be better at one or the other, but I think for us and you look at the top of college football, there’s usually very good balance.” 

Stoops emphasized again the importance of Kentucky playing at a faster pace offensively than it did last season when it was one of the slowest teams in the country snapping the ball. That resulted in UK running less plays than almost every team in the country.

Stoops said he was pleased with the way Hamdan has quickly connected with UK’s players, using winter meetings and walkthroughs to start spring practice on the right foot. Throughout his 20-minute news conference, Stoops stressed the importance of streamlining UK’s offensive play-calling process in order to operate with a faster tempo and run more plays per game.

Defensive coordinator Brad White says Hamdan’s offense is a “challenge” for defenses.

“It stresses your rules. It is great for our old guys so they don’t get bored. It’s real hard for our young guys. iI is going to make us better as a defense. I think it has a high upside,” White said.

Quarterback Brock Vandagriff, a Georgia transfer, is expected to be UK’s starting quarterback. He thought he would be playing for Coen when he came to Kentucky. However, he did not contemplate leaving when Coen did and likes what he has seen from Hamdan.

“It has been fine. I have enjoyed coach Hamdan and his system. Everybody is picking it up really well,” Vandagriff said. “Just listening to the coaches and that selfless culture that was instilled before I got here. Everyone is playing for that dude beside them. 

“I didn’t see coming here as a challenge because we have some guys up front that are game changers. When your OL (offensive line) is nicknamed the Big Blue Wall, that is cool. Our wideout room can flat go get it. The selfless culture here is something I was intrigued by and wanted to be part of the roster here and a coordinator change did not impact that feeling.”

* * *

The biggest surprise team in the Southeastern Conference this season was South Carolina, which beat Kentucky and led the league most of the season under second-year coach Lamont Paris.

Two of his players were asked at the NCAA Tournament in Pittsburgh why they seemed to love their coach so much before South Carolina lost in the first round like most SEC teams did.

“Coach Paris, he's a big jokester. That's why we call him the People's Coach because he relates a lot to a lot of people. So just him having that capability to relate to a lot of people and show a different side that you don't really see probably from a lot of coaches just shows the great person that he is,” B.J. Mack said.

Leading scorer Meechie Johnson said Paris is a “regular guy” off the court and players like that. 

“You see him walking in with his Taco Bell bag, Starbucks, coffee in the morning. But he just watches film all day. Basketball is what he loves, and he studies it,” Johnson said. “He really knows the game and he makes it simple for you.”

Paris will have a Kentucky connection on his team next year with Harlan County guard Trent Noah, who had 48 points in a state tournament quarterfinal win over Campbell County. Kentucky freshman Reed Sheppard is the only other 13th Region player to have scored more career points than Noah. Noah scored over 1,100 points this season.

In four state tourney games, Noah was 39 of 70 from the field overall and 19 of 34 from 3. Noah scored 129 points in the four games — an average of 32.2 points per game. He also had 39 rebounds to just barely miss averaging a double-double.

State tournament coaches raved about his ability to score and make plays that helped his team reach the championship game.

“With his size and the way he shoots the ball, he is a heck of a player,” Warren Central coach William Unseld said. “He is a good athlete but is a great player. He can dribble, shoot and pass. He is super versatile.”

Campbell County coach Brent Sowder said he had been coming to the state tournament his whole life and put Noah’s performance up with any he saw from state legends Chris Lofton, Allan Houston or Richie Farmer. 

“He became a legend tonight — a Sweet 16 legend,” Sowder said after Noah brought Harlan County back from a 16-point deficit. “That’s something that’s going to stay. We’re going to talk about that.”
Noah had 17 points, nine rebounds, three assists, two blocks and one steal in the state title game loss to Lyon.

“I can't say enough good things about Trent Noah. He is amazing. We have a lot of respect for him,” Lyon coach Ryan Perry said. “We had somebody spying him everywhere he went but Trent is such a good player you can't take him away. He is so good.”

Noah's grandfather is Perky Bryant, a former Kentucky player for coach Charlie Bradshaw on the “Thin Thirty” from 1961-63. He was ninth in the Southeastern Conference in rushing in 1962 with 326 yards.

Bryant earned 13 varsity letters at Evarts High School and scored 195 points in his senior season. 

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Quote of the Week: “It would absolutely not surprise me to see him as a starting quarterback in the NFL. I know he has the talent. I know him, myself, all of us wish, we had a little more, maybe another year with him. He’s got a lot of talent and I think he’s got a lot of good football left ahead of him,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops on quarterback Devin Leary after UK's Pro Day.

Quote of the Week 2: “He ended up reaching out to me privately, congratulating me and that means to the world. He’s an amazing player and even better person,” Miss Basketball Trinity Rowe of Pikeville on Mr. Basketball Travis Perry of Lyon County congratulating her on her honor.

Quote of the Week 3: “This is about being prepared to play. This is not about simply your age. And he’s not going anywhere cause they’d have to buy him out at $33 million. He’s got a lifetime contract. So, he’s not going anywhere,” ESPN analyst Jay Bilas on UK coach John Calipari and his “young” team.