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

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


Consider this the white smoke: There is a new Pope, 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, a source briefed on the discussions confirmed Thursday.

Calipari announced this week that he’s leaving Kentucky after 15 years to take the coaching job at Arkansas. Athletic director Mitch Barnhart took two big swings at national championship-winning coaches — he was turned down by both 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 ended up with a far less proven coach in Pope, who has won 20-plus games six times in nine years but has never won an NCAA Tournament game. Add that to a long list of ways, in both style and substance, that Pope is the anti-Calipari, who despite recent struggles guided Kentucky to seven Elite Eights, four Final Fours and a national championship.

But Calipari was also the king of one-and-dones and freshman-driven teams, an approach that was less effective the last four years. Pope approaches roster building quite differently.

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

Pope is plenty adept at mining the portal — and he’ll have to if Kentucky is to field a competitive team next season — as BYU had four transfers in its rotation this year, led by former Texas A&M and Arkansas guard Jaxson Robinson (who still has eligibility). But Pope reiterated: “The most important thing for us is retaining our players. We’re thinking about that every day.”

So, goodbye revolving door in Lexington? It’s a new era indeed, ushered in by a familiar face.

The 51-year-old Pope played two seasons with the Wildcats and was captain of Kentucky’s 1996 national championship team — one of the greatest college teams of all time. He was a second-round NBA draft pick and played parts of six seasons in the league, then did assistant-coaching stints 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 3 and 25 games in Year 4. Then it was off to BYU, where he had a 110-52 record in five seasons, including two NCAA Tournament appearances. The Cougars moved from the West Coast Conference to a much more challenging Big 12 this season and went 23-11, including wins over Baylor, Texas, Iowa State and Kansas. BYU was a No. 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament but was upset by No. 11 seed Duquesne in the first round.

Kentucky fans expected to land someone more proven in the postseason, and they got their hopes up when the first three names to emerge upon Calipari’s exit were Drew, Hurley and Donovan. After Drew and Hurley declined on Thursday, there was widespread hope Barnhart would go all-in for Donovan. That did not happen.

A UK source briefed on the hiring process told The Athletic late Thursday night that an overture was made to Donovan, who was not interested — but multiple other outlets have reported Donovan would have been interested if Kentucky was willing to wait until his NBA season ended, as early as next Wednesday, to engage in more serious discussions.

Wildcats fans hoping for a big splash were caught off guard, then, when Pope’s name emerged Thursday evening. Before his candidacy could even fully be processed, it became clear he was actually the guy. There has been, and will be, some strong backlash from fans, not because of anything that is Pope’s fault, but because they believe Barnhart failed to exhaust all top-tier options before hiring Pope within days of Calipari’s departure.

The thing is, Pope is an alum who loves Kentucky deeply — his college roommate was Jeff Sheppard, whose son starred for the Wildcats this season — and is widely considered a bright coaching mind. There are questions about whether he can recruit at a high enough level, and fears that the drop-off between the level of talent he can attract compared to what Calipari brought in every year will be a major shock to the system. But the Wildcats wanted change, and this is change. So what is Kentucky getting?

For starters, an extremely intelligent guy, one who enrolled in medical school at Columbia after his playing career, before beginning his coaching career. Pope embraces all the new challenges of being a college basketball coach in 2024, including the new headaches of NIL and the transfer portal. Only he doesn’t view those as nuisances.

“That’s the difference between college and the NBA,” Pope said last month. “In the NBA, you get to focus only on basketball all the time. In college, you’re always multitasking. It’s part of the reason I love the job. It feels much more like a CEO that’s getting pulled in 100 different directions all the time than the world expert in one specific slice of the field.

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

And what about the actual basketball? Here’s The Athletic’s CJ Moore, who has studied BYU extensively, with a quick rundown:

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-out, built around zoom actions and a heavy dose of dribble hand-offs, playing through the center. They were at their best with pass-first center Aly Khalifa (who has eligibility) on the floor because of his ability to hit cutters and the guards reading and reacting to the way the defense played.

This was a changeup to his teams of the past. Pope has run continuity ball screen offenses for most of his career, but whatever offense he’s running, his teams have always been well-schooled and fun to watch. From an X’s and O’s acumen, this is a major upgrade from what Kentucky has had.

The track record from an efficiency standpoint is good too. Three of his five teams at BYU have finished in the top 25 in adjusted offense, and his final two teams at Utah Valley finished in the 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 rosters around 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, which 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 as national runner-up in 2021.

Pope is a smart, thoughtful, humble coach whose description of the job — that of a multitasking CEO — speaks to his approach and the fact that he won’t make excuses for the circumstances he’s dealt, which could serve him well in Year 1 at Kentucky.

Required reading

(Photo: Jeffrey Swinger / USA Today)


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