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Mark Pope looks to veterans and being himself as he adapts to coaching Kentucky after John Calipari

Kentucky Pope Basketball
Posted at 7:44 PM, Jun 25, 2024

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Meeting one challenge of playing for the Kentucky Wildcats gave Mark Pope a blueprint for the taller task of coaching them after John Calipari.

At the very least that has meant pursuing a different path toward reaching the high bar of expectations of following the Hall of Famer, whose freshman-laden squads won a lot of games and the 2012 national championship in 15 seasons. Next spring will answer how well it’s going for Pope at his alma mater, but the players he has quickly assembled from scratch through the transfer portal demonstrates that roster-building is certainly within reach for the 6-foot-11 first-year coach. Especially in building with experience as opposed to his predecessor.

“I’m just as much a member of BBN (Big Blue Nation) as anyone, and he’s a Hall of Fame coach," said Pope, a member of Kentucky's 1996 NCAA title team led by Hall of Famer Rick Pitino. Pope received a five-year contract through 2029 that averages $5.5 million per season after going 110-52 in five seasons at BYU with two NCAA Tournament appearances.

Just minutes before, the new coach used his first news conference since being introduced in April to glance left at a blue-tinted wall of title-winners including Adolph Rupp, Pitino and Calipari — all Naismith Memorial Hall of Famers — along with Joe B. Hall and Tubby Smith while noting the tradition they've continued. It's one he aims to maintain his way — no small matter in an era dominated by the portal and name, image and likeness (NIL) endorsement options.

“One of the things that you learn really early on, and I’ve had great mentors in this game, is you just have to coach you," added Pope, who has talked with Calipari. "I have to be me. I can’t be coach (Rick) Pitino, you know? I can’t be Tubby. I can’t be Cal. It would be disingenuous, and my guys wouldn’t believe if I actually tried to take on that persona.”

Coaching changes generally require taking the seasoned route to replenish the roster, and Pope definitely had no other choice to fill the canyon-sized hole that followed Calipari’s stunning departure for Arkansas in early April. Dynamic guards Reed Shepperd and Rob Dillingham and forward Justin Edwards entered the NBA draft after one season as expected, with Shepperd and Dillingham projected as high first-round picks on Thursday night.

Many others hit the transfer portal, with starting point guard D.J. Wagner, reserve forward Adou Thiero and 7-footer Zvonimir Ivišić joining Calipari at Arkansas. Highly-rated recruits such as forward Karter Knox and guard Boogie Fland followed the coach to Fayetteville.

Pope has restocked with six fifth-year players and one senior, junior and sophomore each. The veteran transfers alone have combined for 845 collegiate contests and nearly 8,000 points according to program releases, with Lamont Butler (San Diego State) and 7-footer Amari Williams (Drexel) honored as the top defenders in their former leagues. The freshman class includes Travis Perry, Kentucky's career scoring leader, and in-state deep threat Trent Noah.

As they continue learning each other and Pope's system, early impressions have encouraged the coaching staff.

“Sometimes you get veteran players and they’re less malleable and less coachable, they kind of have done what they’ve done and they do what they do, and they're less responsive," Pope said of the first six workouts. "The thing that’s surprised me is that these guys have been incredibly willing to just rely on any instruction and really go with it.

"It’s really, really wonderful to see these veteran guys and how excited they are to grow and learn and how willing they are to try.”

Work remains, and the transition with such a massive overhaul would suggest some level of grace is in order. On the other hand, expectations are higher at Kentucky and there's a clear urgency among the fan base for the Wildcats to return to national contention following recent early exits from the NCAA Tournament that revealed their inexperience.

That's not an issue with this group, and Pope hopes his veterans he has recruited take their experience to another level at a school they once aspired to beat.

“They’ve got to be the best players in the country," Pope added, “and they’ve got to want to take on the most amount of pressure and scrutiny of any players in the country and they have the highest standard of any program. Finding those pieces is different. It's kind of a nice mix.”