Kentucky finalizes deal to replace John Calipari with BYU's Mark Pope: source

Consider it white smoke: Kentucky has a new pope just like the old one. The Wildcats, in a surprisingly quick move, are finalizing a deal to replace John Calipari with former UK player and current BYU coach Mark Pope as the program's next basketball coach, a source in discussions confirmed Thursday.

Calipari announced this week that he is leaving Kentucky to take the coaching job at Arkansas after 15 years. Athletic director Mitch Barnhart took two big swings at national championship-winning coaches — he was rejected by both Baylor's Scott Drew and Connecticut's Dan Hurley — and at least contacted Chicago Bulls coach Billy Donovan, who had previously led Florida to two national titles.

Barnhart ended up with a much less proven coach in Pope, who has won 20-plus games six times in nine years but never an NCAA Tournament game. Add to that the fact that Pope, who despite recent struggles has led Kentucky to seven Elite Eights, four Final Fours and a national championship, is the antithesis of Calipari in both style and substance.

But Calipari has also been the king of one-and-done rookie-driven teams, an approach that has underperformed over the past four years. Pope approaches roster building very differently.

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When asked how he managed the transfer portal before this year's NCAA tournament, he said Athletic, “Our No. 1 priority is to retain our own players, so when you start from there, it makes things a little bit easier. You have some continuity and you can identify some pieces, some deeper pieces that you need to add.

Pope is so adept at mining the portal — and if Kentucky is to field a competitive team next season — BYU has four transfers in its rotation this year, including former Texas A&M and Arkansas guard Jackson Robinson (who is still eligible). But Pope reiterated: “The most important thing for us is to keep our players. We think about that every day.

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

Pope, 51, played two seasons with the Wildcats and captained 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 assistant-coaches at Georgia, Wake Forest and BYU.

His first head coaching stint 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 on 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 the more challenging Big 12 this season and went 23-11 with wins over Baylor, Texas, Iowa State and Kansas. BYU was the No. 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament, but lost in the first round to 11th-seeded Duquesne.

Kentucky fans were hoping to land someone more proven in the postseason, and they gained hope when the top three names that popped up after Calipari left were Drew, Hurley and Donovan. After Drew and Hurley declined on Thursday, there was widespread hope that Barnhart would go all-in for Donovan. It didn't happen.

A UK source said about the hiring process Athletic Donovan was notified late Thursday night that he was not interested — but Kentucky said Donovan would have been interested in making a more serious move until his NBA season ends, starting next Wednesday. Discussions.

When Pope's name was revealed Thursday evening, Wildcats fans expecting a big splash were caught off guard. Even before his candidacy was fully implemented, it became clear that he really was The boy There has been, and will continue to be, some strong backlash from fans over Pope's mistake, as they believe Barnhart failed to settle all of his top options before hiring Pope within days of Calipari's departure.

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Point is, Pope is an alum who loves Kentucky deeply — his college roommate is Jeff Shepard, whose son starred for the Wildcats this season — and is 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 his impressive talent level compared to what Calipari has brought each year will be a major shock to the organization. But the Wildcats wanted change, and this was change. so what There is Does Kentucky get it?

For starters, the highly intelligent boy enrolled in medical school at Columbia before starting his coaching career after his playing career. Pope has taken on all the new challenges of being a college basketball coach in 2024, including the new headaches of the NIL and the transfer portal. He doesn't just see them as nuisances.

“That's the difference between college and the NBA,” Pope said last month. “In the NBA, you always have to focus on basketball. In college, you're always multitasking. That's one of the reasons I love the job. It feels a lot more like a CEO being pulled in 100 different directions all the time than a world expert in a particular field.

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

And what about actual basketball? Here it is AthleticCJ Moore, who has studied BYU extensively, with a quick recap:

Pope's teams have always played fast. This year the Cougars transition shot a lot of 3s, and ran a lot of 5-out in the half court, zoom actions and a heavy dose of dribble hand-offs, played by center. They were at their best with pass-first center Ali Khalifa (who was eligible) on the floor because of his ability to hit cutters and the way defenders read and reacted to the defense.

It was a change from his past teams. Pope has run a series of ball-screen offenses for most of his career, but no matter what offense he runs, his teams are always well-read and fun to watch. From the brilliance of the X and O, this is a huge upgrade from Kentucky.

The track record from performance standpoint is also good. Three of his five teams at BYU finished in the top 25 in adjusted offense, and his final two teams at Utah Valley ranked in the top two in the WAC in offensive efficiency. He's certainly proven himself as an offensive coach and someone who can build a roster around his skill set and how he wants to play.

His Cougars finished 13th in their Big 12 debut this season, but finished fifth. They also won at Allen Fieldhouse, something few teams have won, and were ranked 13th in The Athletic's top 25 for the following season because of their returning talent. Pope's team did not win the West Coast Conference, but it did finish second to Gonzaga twice, and those Bulldog teams finished 2nd in the Kenpom in 2020 and the national runner-up in 2021.

Pope is a smart, thoughtful, humble coach whose job description — a multitasking CEO — speaks to his attitude and the fact that he doesn't make excuses for the situations he's dealt with, which could serve him well in Year 1. Kentucky.

Required reading

(Photo: Jeffrey Swinger/USA Today)

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