Reed Sheppard cemented himself as Kentucky’s No. 1 option just in time for March

Between Reed Sheppard, Rob Dillingham, and Antonio Reeves, Kentucky has a glut of guards with alpha mentalities, but Sheppard is the real top dog and proved it on Tuesday night in the Cats' 91-89 win over Mississippi State.
Kentucky Wildcats guard Reed Sheppard (15)
Kentucky Wildcats guard Reed Sheppard (15) / Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

He may not be in the starting five for John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats, but he is one of Coach Cal’s best two guards… and he’s not two. Reed Sheppard’s numbers aren’t eye-popping, just 11.7 points a game with 4.3 assists and 4.4 rebounds, but the freshman has been Kentucky’s most steady decision-maker and as the regular season marches towards its conclusion with each game increasing in significance, Sheppard has risen to the occasion.

On Tuesday night in Starkville, Kentucky trailed Mississippi State 43-35 at halftime and was struggling against the Bulldogs’ methodical pace. Sheppard was 3-4 from three with nine points, three rebounds, and three assists, but the Cats needed their best player to be more assertive. So, in the second half, Sheppard scored 23 of his team’s 56 points and capped it off with a floater to beat the buzzer and break the 89-89 tie. 

Calipari has been reluctant to hand the keys to his team over to the freshman, especially with a glut of young talent in the backcourt and the veteran presence of Antonio Reeves looming over the proceedings. Sheppard only sees his first minutes after D.J. Wagner gets yanked following the obligatory charade Calipari has to keep playing to appease the higher-rated freshman. But when Kentucky’s roller-coaster regular season began its descent towards another valley, it was Sheppard, the UK legacy, who grabbed the wheel. 

Sheppard finished the game with 32 points, seven assists, five rebounds, two steals, and two blocks, and did it on 11-14 shooting from the field, 4-7 from three, and 6-6 from the free throw line, including two clutch ones with under a minute remaining. It’s hard to fathom a more impressive and efficient stat line for a 6-foot-3 19-year-old in a hostile environment against a Mississippi State team that is 26th in defensive efficiency. 

Though, this performance shouldn’t come as a surprise. When Sheppard’s had the ball in his hands this season, this is exactly what he’s done. His shooting splits of 52/51/81 are absurd and in the nine games in which he’s taken at least 10 shots, he’s averaging 21.2 points and 5.4 assists while shooting 58.2%. 

All year, Calipari has been tinkering with his lineup, waiting for the cream to rise to the top. He’s still searching for his center between Ugonna Oneynso, Zvonimir Ivisic, and Aaron Bradshaw. Sheppard and Rob Dillingham separated themselves in the backcourt early in the season, but now it’s clear who the No. 1 option is heading into the SEC Tournament and March Madness. 

This game came on the heels of three straight games where Sheppard scored in single digits. He took less than seven shots in each of those games, and that just simply won’t cut it for this team going forward. Calipari’s best teams have always been led by young guards whom he empowers to run the offense. 

The last time Kentucky won the SEC Tournament was 2018, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was the Tournament MVP as a freshman. That was the program’s fourth straight conference tournament title. In 2017 it was De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk, in 2016 Jamal Murray and Tyler Ulis, and the 2015 team with the Harrison twins, Devin Booker and Tyler Ulis was an anomaly. 

The point is, Calipari needs to get back to his roots for Kentucky to succeed in March. That means leaning on Sheppard, not Dillingham, not Reeves, and certainly not Wagner. Dillingham has had moments of brilliance this year, and he’ll probably have more in March, but Sheppard is this team’s best player and that’s never been more clear than Tuesday night at the Humphrey Coliseum.

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