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June 2012
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Former Wildcat Sheppard discusses career, basketball

By Daniel Paulling dpaulling@paducahsun.com

Former Kentucky basketball player Jeff Sheppard and fellow former Wildcats Jarrod Polson and Jon Hood will work a basketball camp at McCracken County High School today. Sheppard spoke with the Paducah Sun about his career, what he's done since retiring and how the 1996 and 1998 national championship teams he played on would fare against Kentucky's 2012 national championship team.

Q: What have you been doing since retiring?

Sheppard: I was (playing) in Rome, Italy, when the terrorist attacks happened in 2001. That kind of changed everything. I came home and started working in the real world and been at it ever since.

It was tough. I love basketball. (But) September 11, 2001, the world changed.

I've just been raising a family in Kentucky. We have an apparel company (Jeff Sheppard Apparel LLC), we have some frozen yogurt stores, and we do some basketball camps and speaking programs around the state. It's been pretty busy. God's been pretty good to us.

Q: Any disappointment about your NBA career?

Sheppard: I tried out for several other teams (after playing 18 games in 1998-99 for the Atlanta Hawks) but didn't make those teams. It's very competitive. A lot of great players are right on the edge, just trying to get a break here or a break there. No regrets from my end. It was a great run.

Q: What do remember from your time at Kentucky the most?

Sheppard: Biggest thing I remember is my teammates. We had some great teams there and just the camaraderie we had together, going through the ups and downs a basketball season brings you. We still stay in touch with each other. It's just a very memorable time of my life.

Q: What were the four years like?

Sheppard: I was thankful I was on four teams - one year I redshirted - '95, '96, '97, '98, all four teams were national championship-caliber teams. Our '95 team was just as talented or more talented than '96, '97, '98. We were playing great in '95 when we got upset in the regional finals by North Carolina. But that's how it goes in the NCAA tournament.

To put ourselves in that position every single year, that's what you want. That's what coaches want, that's what players want. You want to give yourself a team in the NCAA tournament to win it. Most of the time, that points to being a 1 seed or 2 seed.

Q: I'm sure you get this one a lot. How would the 2012 national championship team compare to the ones you played on in 1996 and 1998?

Sheppard: It's difficult, obviously, to compare eras. Both teams had great coaches. I will put the '96 championship team against any team in the history of the NCAA. We were playing very, very good basketball.

(In the Midwest Regional championship,) we just nullified one great player. Tim Duncan's arguably the best player in the last 15 years. We held him to one point in the first half and beat Wake Forest by 20 points. It was because we basically double-teamed him the whole time and forced somebody else to beat us and did the same thing with Marcus Camby (in the Final Four against a University of Massachusetts team coached by John Calipari). We had a great run in '96. I think our '96 team would've fared well against the 2012 team.

Our '98 team, when you compare the '98 team to the 2012 team, we were definitely undermatched in regards to talent. But the only thing I would hang my hat on with the '98 team was their weakness was our strength. We had the ability to come back from large deficits and finish games really strong. They kind of just held on at the end. Even the Kansas game they were hanging on for dear life to win the national championship.

Maybe we could make a miraculous run, and Cameron Mills and Scott Padgett would hit some huge 3-pointers. Our teamwork could overcome all their talent. When you look at us on paper, it's tough for us to match up. But we didn't win the '98 championship on paper. We won it with team chemistry and heart. It's hard to measure that. In '98, it equaled a national championship (against Utah). Would it have in 2012? I don't know.

Q: With the talent returning and the talent coming in, the 2014-15 team will face a lot of pressure. What advice would you give them?

Sheppard: I would tell them to listen to their coach. The quicker that they can buy into the system, believe and trust their coach - Gregg Popovich made maybe one of the best quotes about his three superstars, (Manu) Ginobili, Duncan and (Tony) Parker: "Those three superstars got over themselves a long time ago."

The quicker you get over yourself and you understand that this is a team game and when the team wins, I'm going to win, then the better they will be. That's easier said than done but hard to execute. That's the challenge in front of them. It's not an easy one.

But the thing is coach Cal has been there before. He's had tons and tons of talent. He knows how to deal with super-talented players. He's proven that. At this point, it's the same drill. We've got to get it together quick and make it happen.

Call Daniel Paulling, a Sun sports writer, at 270-575-8662, or follow on Twitter @DanielPaulling.

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