Kentucky finalizing deal to hire BYU’s Mark Pope to replace John Calipari: Source

Consider this like white smoke: There is a new pope, the same as the old pope, in Kentucky. The Wildcats, in a surprisingly quick move, are finalizing a deal to hire former UK player and current BYU coach Mark Pope to replace John Calipari as the program’s next basketball coach, an informed source confirmed Thursday discussions.

Calipari announced this week that he was leaving Kentucky after 15 years to take the coaching job at Arkansas. Athletic director Mitch Barnhart took two major jabs at national championship-winning coaches — he was turned down by Baylor’s Scott Drew and Connecticut’s Dan Hurley — and at least made contact with Chicago Bulls coach Billy Donovan, who previously led Florida to two national titles.

Barnhart found himself with a much less proven coach in Pope, who won more than 20 games six times in nine years but never won an NCAA tournament game. Add that to a long list of ways, both in style and substance, of Pope being the anti-Calipari, who, despite recent struggles, has guided Kentucky to seven Elite Eights, four Final Fours and a national championship.

But Calipari was also the king of one-time, freshman-led teams, a less effective approach over the past four years. Pope approaches list building very differently.

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When asked before this year’s NCAA tournament how he was handling the transfer portal, he said Athleticism“Our No. 1 priority is retaining our own players, so when you start from that space, it makes things a little easier. You have some continuity and you can kind of identify certain pieces, certain depth pieces that you need to add.

Pope is very adept at operating the portal – and he will need to do so if Kentucky wants to field a competitive team next season – as BYU has had four transfers in its rotation this year, led by the former Texas A&M and NFL guard. Arkansas, Jaxson Robinson (still eligible). But Pope reiterated: “The most important thing for us is to retain our players. We think about it every day. »

So, goodbye to the revolving doors in Lexington? It is indeed a new era, ushered in by a familiar face.

Pope, 51, played two seasons with the Wildcats and was captain of the Kentucky team that won the national championship in 1996, one of the greatest college teams of all time. He was selected in the second round of the NBA draft and played parts of six seasons in the league, then worked as an assistant coach at Georgia, Wake Forest and BYU.

His first head coaching job was at Utah Valley, from 2015 to 2019, where he won 23 games in year three and 25 games in year four. He then left for BYU, where he was 110-52 in five seasons. including two appearances in the NCAA tournament. The Cougars moved from the West Coast Conference to a much tougher Big 12 this season and went 23-11, including wins over Baylor, Texas, Iowa State and Kansas. BYU was the No. 6 seed in the NCAA tournament, but was upset by No. 11 seed Duquesne in the first round.

Kentucky fans expected to find someone more postseason proven, and they had high hopes when the first three names to emerge after Calipari’s exit were Drew, Hurley and Donovan. After Drew and Hurley declined on Thursday, there was widespread hope that Barnhart would go all-in for Donovan. This does not happen.

A British source briefed on the recruitment process said Athleticism late Thursday night, an opening was made to Donovan, who was not interested – but several other media outlets reported that Donovan would have been interested if Kentucky was willing to wait until after its NBA season, as early as next Wednesday, to s engage in more serious activities. discussions.

Wildcats fans hoping to make a splash were then caught off guard when Pope’s name came up Thursday night. Before his application could even be fully processed, it became clear that he was in fact THE guys. There has been, and will be, strong negative reactions from fans, not because of Pope’s fault, but because they believe Barnhart failed to exhaust all premiere options plan before hiring Pope days after Calipari’s departure.

The fact is, Pope is an alumnus who loves Kentucky deeply — his college roommate was Jeff Sheppard, whose son played for the Wildcats this season — and is widely considered a brilliant coaching mind. There are questions about whether he can recruit at a high enough level, and there are concerns that the decline between the level of talent he can attract versus what Calipari recruits each year could be a major shock to the system. But the Wildcats wanted change, and this is change. So what East Kentucky coming?

For starters, an extremely intelligent guy, who enrolled in Columbia medical school after his playing career, before starting his coaching career. Pope is taking on all the new challenges of being a college basketball coach in 2024, including the new headaches of NIL and the transfer portal. However, he does not consider this to be a nuisance.

“It’s the difference between college and the NBA,” Pope said last month. “In the NBA you can just focus on basketball all the time. In college, you’re always multitasking. That’s part of the reason I love this job. This is much more like a CEO who is constantly being pulled in 100 different directions than a global expert in a specific field.

“And I love it. I love the work. It’s a lot, but that’s why we love this job.

And what about basketball? Here is AthleticismCJ Moore of , who studied BYU extensively, with a brief overview:

Pope’s teams have always played fast. This year’s Cougars shot a lot of transition 3s and, in the half court, ran a lot of five-and-outs, built around zoom plays and a heavy dose of dribble handoffs, playing through the middle. They were at their best with pass-first center Aly Khalifa (who is eligible) on the court due to his ability to hit cutters and guards reading and reacting to the way the defense was playing.

It was a change from his teams of the past. Pope has run ball-screen continuity offenses for most of his career, but no matter what offense he runs, his teams have always been well-drilled and fun to watch. From an X’s and O’s perspective, this is a major improvement over what Kentucky has experienced.

The record in terms of efficiency is also good. Three of his five teams at BYU finished in the top 25 in adjusted offense, and his last two teams at Utah Valley finished top two in the WAC in offensive efficiency. He’s definitely proven himself as an offensive coach and someone who can both adapt to his talent and build teams based on how he wants to play.

His Cougars were picked to finish 13th in their Big 12 debut this season, but finished fifth, tied with preseason No. 1 Kansas. They also won at Allen Fieldhouse, something few teams do, and are ranked No. 13 in The Athletic’s way-too-early Top 25 for next season because of all their returning talent. Pope’s team never won the West Coast Conference, but it finished second to Gonzaga twice, and those Bulldog teams finished No. 2 at KenPom in 2020 and national runners-up in 2021.

Pope is an intelligent, thoughtful and humble coach whose job description – that of a multi-tasking CEO – is a testament to his approach and the fact that he will not make excuses for the circumstances he was faced with, which could stand him in good stead in year one at Kentucky.

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(Photo: Jeffrey Swinger / USA Today)

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