Former Wildcat legends reflect on Final Four experiences

The Final Four. It’s where college basketball players, teams and coaches most want to end their season. At Kentucky, it’s all about competing for championships, and the culmination of March Madness is where championships are decided. And with the Final Four being on the short list of the world’s largest sporting events, playing on the final weekend of the season is the realization of a dream for most of the participants.

The many aspects involved with playing in the Final Four, from the pressure and expectations, to an altered regimen schedule, to the fact it’s a player living his dream, all of these impact a player’s Final Four experience. Today we look at how two former Kentucky players, Winston Bennett (played in the 1984 Final Four) and Jeff Sheppard (played in the 1996 and 1998 Final Fours and was the ’98 Final Four MVP), dealt with the enormity of the event.

Dealing with the pressures of the moment

“The answer to this (Final Four) week is to be razor-focused, and not getting distracted by all the media, not getting distracted by all the hype, but just staying together as a team, enjoying it for sure, but not getting distracted by it, ” is how Sheppard described the way his teams dealt with the pressures surrounding the Final Four.

But was it pressure Sheppard felt as he prepared to play in the Final Four? He’s not so sure.

The Basics

What: Final Four
Who: Kentucky (36-2) vs. Louisville (30-9)
When: Saturday at 6:09 p.m. ET
Where: Mercedes-Benz Superdome (74,400) in New Orleans
Game notes: UK | U of L
UK Athletics Tourney Central
Official Final Four program
Fan guide

U of L File

Record: 30-9
Head coach: Rick Pitino (275-105 at Louisville)
Seed: 4
Nickname: Cardinals
Conference: Big East
Player to watch: Peyton Siva (9.1 points, 5.6 assists)
Series history: UK leads 29-14
Last meeting:  UK won 69-62 on Dec. 31
“I don’t know if I would call it pressure,” Sheppard said. “I would definitely call it added excitement, which leads to a little bit of nervousness.”

That nervousness Sheppard felt was mitigated a bit by the team camaraderie.

“But in 1998, we had such a good thing going with our team chemistry,” Sheppard said. “We were practicing at 6 a.m., even after we beat Duke (In the Elite Eight), I remember Coach (Tubby) Smith saying, ‘Well guys, I’m going to give you tomorrow morning off,’ and we stepped up as a team and said, ‘No Coach, we’re not taking tomorrow morning off, we’ll be there at 6 a.m.’ ”

“That was the dynamic that existed on that team. We just had a good thing going and a lot of experience.”

Bennett, who is now the head basketball coach at Mid-Continent University, was a freshman on UK’s ’84 Final Four team and was the squad’s designated defensive stopper. He says for the ’84 team it was its mindset which dictated how they dealt with the pressures.

“My total frame of mind and the frame of mind of my teammates was, hey, we want to go out there and play the best basketball we can play, and hopefully come away with an opportunity to play for a championship,” Bennett said. “I think most pressure is put on you by yourself, more than any exterior pressure. I think most pressure is placed on ourselves, by ourselves.”

Game week preparation

Of course, when a team is participating in the Final Four, many of its tried and true game week routines change, but many times game preparation remains the same.

“Every game we followed the same routine,” said Bennett, who played for coach Joe B. Hall in the Final Four. “We worked on us, and then we worked on our opponent. Now, what may have been different was the fact that we wanted to be as focused as humanly possible, we didn’t want the outside influences of ticket requests, fan requests and all that, because that can have a devastating effect on your focus.”

Sheppard’s squad’s preparation was focused on the framework of the Wildcat team.

“The first step was improving as individuals and improving as a team, and continuing that whole process (you’ve been working on all year),” Sheppard said. “And the next step is you are focused on your (next) opponent, and absolutely no way do you need to look past the first opponent in the Final Four.”

Sheppard summed up his thoughts with this: “You don’t have to win six games, you only have to win one. Just win your last game.”

Staying focused

Winston Bennett played on the 1984 Final Four team. (photo courtesy of UK Athletics)

The attention the Final Four brings from a media standpoint alone is extraordinary, and for the players, staying focused can be a legitimate challenge. Bennett remembers maintaining his season-long tack.

“I had a business-like mentality,” Bennett said. “You ask a different player and you might get a different answer, but for me, I had a business-type mentality. I wore the scowl, I was all about business, so (staying focused) wasn’t as difficult for me.”

Importantly, enabling Bennett to keep his business first attitude was “because I knew my role. My role was to mop up the floor if I had to, get any loose balls, get any rebounds and defend like a maniac. So I knew my role and I tried to stay with-in it.”

Once game time rolled around, the routine was the same.

“You get in that locker room, in pregame mode, in pregame preparation, and all that other stuff goes out the window.\,” Bennett said. “Once you get into the warm-up line and that ball is thrown up and the game begins, you don’t have enough space in your mind to think about what the fans think or what anybody else thinks. The only thing you’re thinking about is your focus, your teammates and the job at hand. This is the Super Bowl of basketball, you can’t afford to think about distractions.”

For Sheppard, a Peach Tree City, Ga. native, staying focused meant blocking out the importance of the games and how many fans are effected by the outcome.

“When you try to digest, as a player, all the fans who are pulling for you, you know, the feeling of winning a national championship, and you try to digest all of that, it consumes you,” Sheppard said. “That’s the point where it can get dangerous.”

But Sheppard, who owns and operates 15inc, a London, Ky. based apparel and promotions company, said that if he had to play today, burdened with the knowledge of how important UK basketball is, he might struggle with keeping his Final Four focus.

“Right now, after being out (of basketball) for so many years, and traveling the state and knowing how big Kentucky basketball is, to play right now in a Final Four, I would be useless because I know how big it is, how important it is” to the people of Kentucky, Sheppard said. “In ’98 I didn’t know. I knew it was big, but it hadn’t sunk in yet (laughing), and I was just a ball player that was happy to be there. I was loose and I was relaxed, I was confident.

“Yeah, I was definitely nervous, but not to the point where I was consumed about disappointing people and letting them down. I didn’t think that way, and I’m glad I didn’t because I wouldn’t have been able to perform.

Living a dream

Playing in the Final Four, for many players, is the realization of a life-long hoop dream, which can add to the already pressure-packed atmosphere. For Sheppard, it’s what drove him.

“It is what’s on your mind,” Sheppard said. “The key is to enjoy it; the key is to enjoy and embrace it, but don’t be consumed by it. Enjoy the moment, but once again, stay laser-focused on your mission at hand.”