Reed Sheppard was on the minds of many — including Mark Pope — in Rupp celebration Sunday

Reed Sheppard was not inside Rupp Arena on Sunday afternoon.

But he was on the minds of many of the Kentucky basketball fans who filled the building to capacity to see one of their own — former UK player Mark Pope — introduced as the program’s next head coach.

At one point in his opening remarks, Pope drew attention to the current Wildcats star, the son of his college roommate and — after just one season in Lexington — already one of the most beloved Kentucky basketball players in memory.

Pope, a captain of the 1996 national championship team, led into that segment by saying that only a “select few” players in the world get to experience what it means to be a Wildcat. He then talked about his NBA playing career.

“You know what we did in the locker rooms, guys?” Pope asked those assembled. “And I played with All-Stars and some of the greatest to ever play. You know what we did? We didn’t talk about the NBA teams we played for. We didn’t talk about NBA championships or MVPs. You know what we did? We sat in the locker room, and we talked about our college basketball team.”

That got a loud pop from the capacity Rupp Arena crowd.

“Nobody’s going home to their NBA team,” Pope continued as the noise died down. “They’re coming home to here.”

And then another round of applause. And then the punchline.

“I believe these players — our jobs as coaches is we get to be shepherds,” said Pope, who paused comedically for effect as the filled-to-the-rafters building went bananas.

After some brief chants of “Reed! Reed! Reed!” a much louder one broke out.

“One more year!” Rupp roared. “One more year! One more year!”

Pope stepped away from the microphone, cracking up on the stage at center court. Over on one of the baselines, Jeff Sheppard stood smiling, somewhat nervously, as their ’96 teammates and other Kentucky basketball greats burst into laughter around him, the crowd noise sustaining.

“Sometimes, no words are the most powerful words of all,” Pope said when he returned to the mic.

Kentucky’s new coach went on to talk about the great privilege it is to “be a shepherd” to the players that come though your program. Pope spent his first four seasons as a head coach at Utah Valley and the past five at BYU, but he knows what it means to be a Wildcat.

“When you come to Kentucky, it just rips you open,” Pope said. “Your insides get exposed. Your whole guts are out there. And then you get to rebuild yourself — with your teammates and your staff — and become something new and better that changes your life forever. And we get to shepherd guys through that. These players are my job to coach and shepherd. And our job to love. And for every player, I wish that they could come and experience something like this. There is nothing better. And you can’t get it anywhere else besides Kentucky.”

Whether it was directed at Sheppard or not, it was some sales pitch, and the Rupp Arena fans loved every minute of it.

Kentucky guard Reed Sheppard (15) smiles during a game against Mississippi State in Starkville, Miss., on Feb. 27. Ryan C. Hermens/
Kentucky guard Reed Sheppard (15) smiles during a game against Mississippi State in Starkville, Miss., on Feb. 27. Ryan C. Hermens/

Reed Sheppard’s decision

Sheppard earned national freshman of the year honors from several major national outlets following the 2023-24 season. He averaged 12.5 points, 4.1 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 2.5 steals in 28.9 minutes per game. The former North Laurel High School star also shot 52.1% from 3-point range. Though he rarely started, Sheppard did play the second-most minutes on the team — behind only fifth-year player Antonio Reeves — and had four games with 25 or more points, including star performances on the road in wins over Mississippi State and Tennessee. His 82 steals in 33 games were the second-most in a single season in Kentucky basketball history behind only Rajon Rondo, who had 87 steals in 34 games during the 2004-05 season.

Sheppard is universally projected as a lottery pick in this year’s NBA draft. ESPN’s latest rankings of the top 100 available NBA prospects for 2024 place him at No. 7 overall.

Several weeks remain before Sheppard will have to make a final decision on his draft status. College players must officially declare by April 27 if they want to be considered for the 2024 NBA draft, but they have until May 29 — 10 days after the NBA Draft Combine concludes — to remove their names from consideration and retain their college eligibility.

Sheppard would certainly receive an invitation to the NBA Draft Combine if he does declare, so — assuming he enters his name in the draft pool — his decision could stretch until the end of next month in order to receive all the feedback available before making a final decision.

Pope and Sheppard’s father, Jeff Sheppard, were roommates at UK in the 1990s and teammates for three seasons, including the 1995-96 national championship run.

Jeff Sheppard, who went on to earn Most Outstanding Player honors in the 1998 Final Four — leading the Wildcats to another national title that year — talked to the Herald-Leader on Friday morning, before UK had even officially announced that Pope would be the team’s new coach.

Sheppard said that he was “pumped up” for the Pope era to begin in Lexington and would be among his longtime friend’s biggest supporters as he laid the foundation for the future of the program.

Pope, who spent the past five seasons as the head coach at BYU, is expected to bring an innovative and explosive offense with him to Lexington, and Sheppard would obviously be among the featured players on the team if he does decide to return to Kentucky for the 2024-25 season.

BYU ranked second nationally in 3-point attempts — and third in made 3-pointers — during the 2023-24 season, and the Cougars finished at No. 14 in offensive efficiency in the KenPom ratings.

Jeff Sheppard did not say Friday how Pope’s hiring might affect his son’s decision on his basketball future, noting that the new UK coach “has been a friend for a long time” but that he didn’t yet know what was next for Reed.

“He’s trying to go through a process of gathering information to really see truly where he is. There’s obviously all kinds of talk. But with a decision like this, you can’t just listen to a little bit of talk. You really have to get concrete information. And so, we feel like we’re going through the process at the right speed.

“Will this have an impact? Or what is the timing? That’s still an unknown. It’s something that we will continue to work through. We’ll probably — as the Sheppards usually do — work through it as a family. With the door closed. And we’ll do our best to communicate when it’s the right time.”

New Kentucky basketball head coach Mark Pope hugs former teammate and roommate Jeff Sheppard after an introductory event at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky, Sunday, April 14, 2024. Silas Walker/
New Kentucky basketball head coach Mark Pope hugs former teammate and roommate Jeff Sheppard after an introductory event at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky, Sunday, April 14, 2024. Silas Walker/

Rex Chapman weighs in

One of the Kentucky legends in Rupp Arena on Sunday afternoon was Rex Chapman, another in-state kid who went on to play for the Wildcats and had to traverse his way through the UK basketball fishbowl and all of the challenges that go along with it.

Chapman, an early supporter of Reed Sheppard, spoke highly of Kentucky’s new coach, as well as Jeff Sheppard and his wife, Stacey Reed Sheppard, a former UK women’s basketball star.

He said both Pope and the Sheppards are as deserving of their recent success as any people who have come through the Kentucky basketball family.

“Those guys — and Stacey — blood, sweat and tears for this program for years,” Chapman said. “Tough times for Mark. Tough times for Jeff. Both of them playing behind really good NBA players. They could’ve transferred at any time. Both of them stuck it out. They made it through. And that sort of sticktoitiveness and work ethic … well, you see. He’s now the coach here. And Jeff and Stacey have one of the best players on the planet.”

Asked about Reed Sheppard’s current stay-or-go situation, Chapman — rarely at a loss for words — paused to collect himself and took a more serious tone.

“I don’t have the right answer,” he said. “I’ll say this. Every player. Every athlete that walks into Kentucky. Every athlete that walks on this floor. … You gotta just keep in mind: Every athlete is one wrong step from never playing again. And as much as you wanna hang around and you wanna be a kid — you gotta weigh that. And I can say this: He’s got the two best people — Jeff and Stacey — to advise him. They’re a family that’s very grounded. They know that basketball will end one day. So I have no doubt that they’ll make the right decision. Reed will make the right decision.”

When Pope made the “shepherd” remark and the Rupp fans started their chant, Chapman was among those laughing as he stood next to Jeff Sheppard, at one part draping his arm around his shoulder. He said he was glad Reed wasn’t in the building, and he — perhaps as much as anyone — knows the pressure he’s under with this decision.

Chapman, a star player from Owensboro who played two seasons at Kentucky in the 1980s before going to the NBA draft, also said he knows this is different. He grew up in the state, but he also grew up a Louisville fan. Sheppard has bled blue since the moment he was born.

“Kentucky is Reed’s dream school. He’s a Kentucky kid. An eastern Kentucky kid. And I know for a fact they didn’t think any of this stuff would happen this fast,” Chapman said. “So it’s almost, ‘Be careful what you wish for.’ You work your ass off your entire life to become as good as you can be and play at the University of Kentucky. And you do that, and now you’re forced with a very, very adult decision.

“I’m happy he’s in this position. But, man, it’s hard.”

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