Although senior guard Jeff Sheppard was a redshirt last season and had to sit and watch as the Wildcats went to the national-championship game without him, his enthusiasm for the game never waned. "It didn't make any difference if it was two or three in the morning," says teammate Cameron Mills, "he would go to the gym and shoot. That carried over through the summer. He's got that itch. He wants to play."
Of all the assets that former coach Rick Pitino left his successor, Tubby Smith—including two starters from the team that lost in overtime to Arizona in the NCAA tournament final—Sheppard may turn out to be the best. Pitino felt that Sheppard has the potential to play in the NBA, which was one reason why he continued to redshirt him even after starting guard Derek Anderson was lost for the season on Jan. 18 with a torn ACL in his right knee.
So now Sheppard is still around to provide leadership and firepower to a team that has lost Anderson and forward Ron Mercer, both first-round picks in the NBA draft. Smith, who was a Pitino assistant at Kentucky before moving on to develop winning programs at Tulsa and Georgia, believes the Wildcats can compensate with balance. "We have a lot of people who can score in a lot of different ways," he says.
Indeed, junior point guard Wayne Turner has an improved outside shot to go with his ability to penetrate; 6'10" junior Nazr Mohammed and 6'10" sophomore Jamaal Magloire provide a strong presence in the pivot; 6'9" junior Scott Padgett, 6'5" senior Allen Edwards and 6'6" junior newcomer Heshimu Evans (a transfer from Manhattan College) are dangerous anywhere on the floor; and Mills, who made 53.2% of his three-pointers last year, is instant offense off the bench.
Yet if there's one player who can make the difference between this being an ordinary team (by Kentucky's lofty standards) or another national-title contender, it's Sheppard. As a sophomore in 1994—95 he started 27 games and averaged 8.3 points for a 28-5 team that was upset by North Carolina in the Southeast Regional finals. The next season Sheppard gracefully accepted a bench role and a significant cut in minutes but still was an important contributor on the deep squad that won the NCAA championship. Then he stepped aside last year on Pitino's advice. "I got kind of antsy at tournament time, but I'm glad I sat out a year," Sheppard says. "I got in good shape, and I worked on my ball handling and shooting. I hope every part of my game got a little better. Now I've been here the longest, so I need to be a leader."
Padgett, who missed a season because of academic shortcomings, understands what Sheppard went through last season. "The year off really helped Jeff because he learned basketball from a coach's perspective," he says. "Now he knows the game, where everybody should be on the floor, instead of relying on just his athletic ability. He'll be tough to play against. In practice he has pretty much scored at will."
That's how it is when you have the itch.