If you ask a true college basketball fan to start naming a list of March Madness heroes, it won’t be long before you hear the name Jeff Sheppard – or at least it shouldn’t be. Sheppard helped Kentucky to two national championships in the mid-1990s and was named Most Outstanding Player in 1998.
Sheppard’s first title, though, came in 1996, as Kentucky beat Massachusetts and Syracuse in the Final Four.
“We were really on a roll in ’96, had a lot of talent,” Sheppard said on CBS Sports Radio’s Ferrall on the Bench. “Coach Pitino’s system at that time was a full-court press, a lot of three-pointers, a lot of alley-hoops, a lot of easy dunks, and we really were able to turn teams over. And we were hot. We were on a run through the NCAA Tournament. We beat a Keith Van Horn-led Utah team by a huge amount. We beat Wake Forest and Tim Duncan by 20 points, I believe. We were really hot. That Final Four was unique. We finished the season with two losses to two teams that were in the Final Four – Mississippi State and UMass. So a great run for Kentucky in 1996.”
UMass, of course, was coached by John Calipari.
“It is pretty crazy,” Sheppard said. “I think about Coach Cal’s UMass teams, and gosh, they actually beat us early in the season in 1996. We did not have an answer for Marcus Camby – and we had great big guys. We had Mark Pope, Walter McCarty and Antoine Walker – who all ended up playing nice careers in the NBA. And we did not have an answer for Camby.”
Calipari had to vacate his Final Four at UMass – and one more at Memphis – but he’s more than made up for it in Kentucky. He’s led the Wildcats to the Final Four in four of the last five years and has a chance this weekend to win his second national title.
Up first? A Final Four rematch with Wisconsin this Saturday at 8:49 p.m. ET.
“I think Kentucky’s challenge is to get out and disrupt their basketball flow,” Sheppard said. “If you let them cut and you let (Frank) Kaminsky post up and do his fakes and you let them do their thing, then they’re going to give you trouble. Which Kentucky team is going to show up? Is the shutdown, lockdown defensive team that you just can’t even get off a good shot – are they going to show up? Or is the team that allowed Notre Dame (to score with ease going to show up)?
“What an interesting matchup right off the bat,” Sheppard continued. “I think a lot of people think that that might be the national championship game, but it never works that way. You’ve got to play these games to win. And as I’ve been talking to Kentucky fans, that’s what I’ve been saying. When you go into the Final Four, you can’t just show up and kind of hope that you have more points at the end of the game. You got to go win these games. You got to go make plays. You got to go get stops. You got to get every rebound, every loose ball and you got to play to win. You’re not going to be given the national championship. You got to win the national championship.”
That’s what Kentucky did in 1998, overcoming double-digit deficits in its last three games, including a 17-point deficit against Duke.
“Anytime Kentucky and Duke get together on the basketball court, you know something special is going to happen,” Sheppard said. “Pitino’s gone and we don’t have the talent on paper that we had in the previous years. And then all of a sudden we get on this magical run. We have the experience. We have the togetherness. We have the team attitude that allowed us to come back from any deficit. My last game at Kentucky – my last game as a college athlete – was a win, and not many people get to say that. So I’m just really blessed to be on the Kentucky team during that era. I love talking about it every day.”