Kentucky finalizes deal to hire Mark Pope from BYU to replace John Calipari: Source

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

Calipari announced this week that he will leave Kentucky after 15 years to take the coaching job at Arkansas. Athletic director Mitch Barnhart made 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 made connections with Chicago Bulls coach Billy Donovan, who previously led Florida to two national titles.

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

But Calipari was also king of individual teams and freshman-led teams, an approach that has been less effective the past four years. Bob approaches roster building very differently.

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When asked before this year's NCAA Tournament how he managed the transfer portal, he said The athlete“Our first priority is to retain our players, so when you start from that space, it makes things a little easier. You have some continuity and you can identify some pieces, some deeper pieces that you need to add.

Pope is so skilled at drilling in the portal — and he'll have to if Kentucky wants to field a competitive team next season — that BYU had four transfers in its rotation this year, led by former Texas A&M and Arkansas guard Jackson Robinson (who still has eligibility). . But Pope reiterated: “The most important thing for us is to retain our players. We think about that every day.”

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So, goodbye revolving door in Lexington? It's truly a new era, started 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 had assistant coaching stints at Georgia, Wake Forest and BYU.

His first head coaching job was at Utah Valley, from 2015-19, where he won 23 games in year three and 25 games in year four. He then transferred to Brigham Young University, where he posted 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, 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 get someone more proven in the postseason, and they got their hopes up when the first three names that came up when Calipari was out were Drew, Hurley and Donovan. After Drew and Hurley's rejection on Thursday, there was widespread hope that Barnhart would go all out for Donovan. This did not happen.

A British source familiar with the recruitment process said The athlete Late Thursday night, an offer was made to Donovan, who was not interested — but several other outlets reported that Donovan would have been interested if Kentucky was willing to wait until the NBA season ended, early next Wednesday, To engage in more serious discussions.

Wildcats fans who were hoping for a buzz were surprised when Pope's name came up Thursday night. Before his candidacy could be fully processed, it became clear that he already was the man. There has been, and will be, some strong backlash from fans, not through any fault of Pope, but because they believe Barnhart failed to exhaust all top-level options before hiring Pope within days of Calipari's departure.

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The thing is, Bob is a guy who loves Kentucky dearly — his college teammate was Jeff Sheppard, whose son starred 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 concerns that a drop in the level of talent he can attract compared to what Calipari has brought in each year would be a major shock to the system. But the Wildcats wanted change, and this is change. so what He is KFC get?

For starters, a very smart guy, he attended medical school at Columbia University after his playing career, before starting his coaching career. Bob is embracing all the new challenges of being a college basketball coach in 2024, including the new headaches of the NIL and the transfer portal. Only he doesn't view those as inconveniences.

“That's the difference between college and the NBA,” Pope said last month. “In the NBA, you just have to focus on basketball all the time. In college, you're always multitasking. It's part of the reason I love this job. It's more like a CEO being pulled in 100 different directions all the time than a world-class expert in One specific segment of the field.

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

What about actual basketball? here The athleteC.J. Moore, who has studied Brigham Young University extensively, gives a quick summary:

Pope's teams have always played fast. This year the Cougars ran a lot of three-and-D transitions, and in the halfcourt they ran a lot of five-pointers, built around zoom routines and a heavy dose of pass dribbling, and playing through the position. They were at their best with pass-first center Ali Khalifa (who has eligibility) on the floor because of his ability to hit cutters, read guards, and respond to the way the defense played.

This has been a change for his teams in the past. Bob has run consistent ball screen offenses for most of his career, but whatever offense he runs, his teams have always been well-schooled and fun to watch. From the X's and O's acumen, this is a huge upgrade from where Kentucky was.

The track record from an efficiency point of view is also good. Three of his five teams at BYU finished in the top 25 in adjusted offense, and his last team at Utah Valley finished in the top two in the WAC in offensive efficiency. He has certainly proven himself as an offensive coach and someone who can adapt to his talent and build rosters around the way he wants to play.

His Cougars were picked to finish 13th in their first Big 12 appearance this season but finished fifth, tied with No. 1 Kansas before the season. They've also won at Allen Fieldhouse, which few teams do, and are ranked No. 13 on The Athletic's top 25 so early next season because of all their returning talent. Pope's team has never won the West Coast Conference, but has finished second behind Gonzaga twice, and those Bulldog teams finished second in the KenPom in 2020 and national runner-up in 2021.

Bob is a smart, thoughtful and humble coach, and the job description — a multitasking CEO position — speaks to his approach and the fact that he won't make excuses for the circumstances he deals with, which could serve him well in his first year at Kentucky.

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(Photo: Jeffrey Swinger/USA Today)

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