His coach thought Reed Sheppard would be a better player this year and also expected more statewide attention to be focused on him as he did improve.
Sheppard averaged 20.6 points and 5.2 rebounds for North Laurel as a freshman. He shot 50.4% overall from the field, 34% from 3-point range and 77% at the foul line while scoring 660 points.
And he just happens to be the son of former University of Kentucky standouts Stacey Reed Sheppard and Jeff Sheppard, the MVP of UK’s 1998 Final Four national championship team.
“He had a great offseason and knew he was primed to have a good year,” North Laurel coach Nate Valentine said. “I just didn’t know how good because we didn’t have summer ball and no preseason scrimmages. We went into the season kind of blind but he’s been great and our team has been great. I have certainly been surprised by the attention and coverage we have got. There is a lot of interest in our team and Reed.”
North Laurel averaged a state-best 95 points while winning its first eight games, including an eye-opening 89-87 win over Covington Catholic when Sheppard had 45 points and 12 rebounds. Five times in 10 games North scored 98 or more points.
“We are small but we are fast. The only way we can play is fast,” Valentine said. “We don’t make scoring 100 points a goal. We beat Madison Southern by 24 points and scored 82. Our guys were disappointed. I told them our expectations were not to win by 40 and score 100 every night. It’s great if it does but we should not be disappointed if it does not happen.”
The 6-foot-1 Sheppard is averaging 31 points and eight rebounds per game. He’s hitting 41% from 3-point range and 86.2% at the foul line. In a win over rival South Laurel last week, he had a triple-double with 50 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds and came back the next night with 30 points, nine rebounds and eight assists in a win over Madison Central.
“Reed is such a good passer. Everybody looks at his scoring but he is one of the best passers I have seen. He has great court vision and is so unselfish,” Valentine said. “We have got guys around him that can make open shots. He helps them and they help him.”
Sheppard put on about 10 pounds and was one of a small group of players that managed to work out on their twice a day even during the pandemic. Valentine said players even built their own devices so they could lift weights.
“Reed’s mental approach to the game is at a higher level. He has a better understanding of where he wants to be three years and beyond and what it takes to get there,” Valentine said. “He was a good shooter last year but with age and strength he’s better this year. He worked on his outside shot a lot. He’s making a lot more 3’s than last year and is a more consistent shooter.
“But the thing he does really well is he gets to the basket and finishes. He makes a lot of tough shots most high school kids don’t make.”
Iowa was Sheppard’s first Power Five offer two weeks ago. Two former UK coaches who Jeff Sheppard played for have also offered. Rick Pitino gave him an Iona offer and Tubby Smith did the same at High Point. South Alabama and Stetson have also offered scholarships to Sheppard, who had a quadruple double as a freshman with 24 points, 10 rebounds, 10 steals and 14 assists.
“He’s going to eventually have a long list of offers,” Valentine said. “I get calls from college coaches about every day. Coaches are in a phase now where they cannot contact him so all communication goes through me. But that’s a good problem to have.
“COVID has forced everyone to get all games online, something high schools and even AAU should probably have done 10 years ago. College coaches probably have more access to watch more kids now than ever, just not in person. I get three or four texts after every game from coaches wanting to know where they can download the game video.
“One of the really nice things is that some teams we have played have been Reed’s biggest promoter. A college coach will call them and they will tell coaches they need to be recruiting Reed. That has happened at least three or four times that I know of.”
Since Olivier Sarr was a third-team all-ACC player for Wake Forest last season, his transfer to Kentucky was expected to give the Wildcats a veteran and consistent player.
Instead, he’s not been nearly as productive as expected and much more inconsistent than anticipated. He is averaging 10.3 points and 5.9 rebounds per game and shooting 47% from the field.
Sarr says one reason is because the press at Kentucky is far greater than anything he was used to in the ACC.
“It’s still the same game, but you get more pressure at Kentucky, I think. There’s more outside pressure. There’s more expectations and you can feel that as a player. I mean, it’s good preparation for the next level, but it takes some time to adapt and get used to it,” Sarr said.
He said the ACC and SEC have different styles of play.
“I think it’s more athletic in this league. You don’t play against big centers that much. There’s a couple of teams that have big centers, but not as much as in the ACC. But other than that, I mean, the style of play is a little bit different,” Sarr said.
Assistant coach Bruiser Flint came to UK from Indiana this year but he knows how intense the pressure is for Kentucky players.
“The expectations are extremely high. I think sometimes they get a little crazy, but that’s what you sign up for. You love to have fans like that, but it can get a little out of hand with social media,” Flint said. “Today these kids read that stuff and it affects them, so you’ve got to be a little bit more sensitive to it and we talk to them all the time about, ‘Stay off reading about that stuff.’ But it’s hard with these kids. That’s what they grew up doing.”
Flint believes Sarr has the same problem some freshmen have — he’s lost confidence in his abilities.
“With Olivier, ‘Hey, believe what you’re doing.’ The kid has a great skill level. He’s a great kid. He works at it. You’ve just got to believe in what you’re doing,” Flint said. “This was a big leap for him too, coming in from Wake Forest to Kentucky. The pressure is totally different and how people perceive how you play.
“And if you don’t think that plays a part in it, then you’re crazy. I think the last couple of weeks, I think he’s feeling a lot more comfortable than he was and you can see it in his play a little bit. A lot more consistent.”
Lexington Herald-Leader columnist Mark Story has spent a lot of years overseeing nominations and votes for the Herald-Leader Kentucky Sports Figure of the Year. He thought Kentucky offensive line coach John Schlarman was the perfect winner for his year’s award.
“John sort of fits the year and the story of somebody battling adversity and in many ways triumphing against adversity,” said Story. “He won by the biggest margin in the last four years.”
Schlarman played at Kentucky, was a graduate assistant coach at UK and came back to UK as the offensive line coach when Mark Stoops was hired eight years ago. Schlarman was diagnosed with cancer before the 2018 season and died midway of this season. His last game coaching was UK’s win at Tennessee where he got the game ball just like he did in 2018 when the Cats won at Florida.
“The thing that was the most inspirational about John is that he didn’t let it (cancer) cheat him out of his life,” Story said. “He wanted to do what he did until the end and that is what he basically did.
“The adversity he was up against made him the winner but he also did a heck of a job building an offensive line at Kentucky. The conventional wisdom always was you could not play run-oriented football at Kentucky and win in the SEC.
“But in 2018 his line blocked for Benny Snell, UK’s all-time leading rusher. In 2019 they blocked for Lynn Bowden and he led the SEC in rushing as a receiver. In 2020 they won a bowl game again and had three offensive linemen who got all-SEC or All-American honors.”
Schlarman got more first-place votes than any winner in the past four years had.
Senior Chasity Patterson is on the Naismith Women’s Defensive Player of the Year Watch List and has led the nation in steals much of the season. She had 10 steals against Wofford earlier this season, something only one other UK player had ever done.
Alabama coach Kristy Curry appreciates all the things Patterson can do to help Kentucky win and did against her team last week.
“She is shooting 80% from free throw and wants the ball in critical moments,” Curry said. “She is extremely quick, can hit a 3 and is just a good all-around good point guard who does a nice job leading her team.
“She is probably one of the best defensive players in the SEC. Her energy on the ball is outstanding.”
Patterson was the top rated point guard in the 2017 recruiting class who picked Texas but then transferred to UK. She was the SEC Sixth Player of the Year last season when she averaged 11.5 points per game.
“Chasity is steady. We know what we’re going to get from her. Her ability to score, she can score at all three levels, she’s an energizer bunny, she can play for long periods of time, and she is going to get a steal or two every game. That is just what she does,” Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy said.
“Her ability to locate the ball and make steals, and her speed is just all-natural killer instincts. I like what Chasity is bringing to the table, she is playing extremely confident, and we need her to continue to do that.”
Patterson is averaging 12.9 points, 4.5 steals, 3.9 assists and 2.8 rebounds per game and shooting 48.5% from the field and 82.4% at the foul line.
Kentucky is bringing in offensive coordinator Liam Coen to implement a pro-style offense like he was part of with the Los Angeles Rams. However it’s hard to imagine running back Chris Rodriguez not being the centerpiece of the offense.
Rodriguez led Kentucky with 785 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns on just 119 carries last season and no other SEC player with 50 or more attempts averaged more yards than his 6.6 yards per carry.
Pro Football Focus graded Rodriguez higher than any other returning college running back — and UK All-American tackle rated the highest of any returning lineman.
Bleacher Report’s preseason rankings of the returning running backs has Rodriguez fifth overall and first in the SEC after he rushed for 480 yards and seven scores in UK’s last four games.
Kentucky recruiting coordinator/NFL liaison Vince Marrow said Rodriguez never seriously contemplated leaving UK for the NFL and giving up his senior season.
“With him, it is more like, ‘This is my show. I am the man now. I am the starter.’ He’s really excited about what we can do and he can do. I think Liam is going to find more ways to get him the ball and Chris knows he’s our guy going into the season,” Marrow said.
Quote of the Week: “I really like him a lot and hope things work out. They will never have another coach do what he has done at Kentucky. However, they are the only school in the nation that has five coaches win a national title,” former LSU coach Dale Brown on UK coach John Calipari.
Quote of the Week 2: “The work he has done with his conditioning, building up his strength and explosiveness is pretty impressive. He’s gonna be around a long time,” 247Sports national basketball director Eric Bossi on former UK guard Keldon Johnson’s career with the San Antonio Spurs.
Quote of the Week 3: “We never talk about him but he gives you one thing I know because I have seen it every game. You can bank on it and he is going to play 100% all-out every night. Does it turn into 20 points? No. But it turns into five deflections, two offensive cutbacks, getting on the floor. He gives you that if he plays five minutes or plays 15 minutes,” former UK All-American Jack Givens on UK sophomore Jacob Toppin.