Grading Kentucky’s Mark Pope hire after top options turn down Wildcats

The standards at Kentucky are higher than just about anywhere else in men’s college basketball. Competing at the top of the SEC isn’t enough for the Wildcats — this is expected to be one of the premier programs in the sport year-in, year-out. There have been a few down season in Lexington over time, but rarely for a sustained stretch. A Kentucky head coach has to win big — and win big quickly — or risk getting run out of town.

Mark Pope was named Kentucky’s new head coach on Friday night less than one week after John Calipari’s surprise deflection to Arkansas. Pope was not Kentucky’s first choice: the program was rebuffed by Baylor’s Scott Drew despite putting on a full-court press, and talks reportedly never got serious with UConn’s Dan Hurley.

The Kentucky job became open because fans had grown frustrated with Calipari’s lack of NCAA tournament success in recent years. The Wildcats haven’t been past the first weekend of the tournament since 2019. Calipari and Co. were a first round knock out as a No. 2 seed by No. 15 seed Saint Peter’s in the first round of the 2022 tournament. Some so-called experts (/raises hand) thought Kentucky had a path to the Final Four this year. Instead, the Wildcats’ 2024 tournament run ended in their first game to No. 14 seed Oakland.

Kentucky may have fired Calipari outright after the Oakland loss but the program couldn’t stomach eating his huge buyout. Instead, Calipari did the trick himself by leaving for Arkansas after Eric Musselman left for USC, which happened because Andy Enfield left for SMU, which happened because SMU fired Rob Lanier. It’s been a wild ride for Pope to get the Kentucky job.

Wildcats fans may have wanted Calipari out, but the hiring of Pope is proof that sometimes fans need to be careful what they wish for. Let’s dive into the Pope hire and attach the stakes that come with his arrival.

Kentucky is risking it all on Mark Pope

If Kentucky was shooting for the stars to replace Calipari, hiring Pope is a curious choice. For all of Calipari’s shortcomings as an in-game tactician, he typically had the program riding high every year with a chance to make noise in March. A single-elimination tournament is a fickle beast, and unfortunately for the Wildcats, they came up on the short end of it too often in recent years.

Calipari took the program to four Final Four appearances and won the 2012 national championship. Good luck to Pope if that’s the type of expectation he has to measure up to. Topping Calipari’s more recent stretch of first round knockouts won’t be too difficult, but of course that only had Wildcats fans frothing at the mouth to fire him.

Pope is a Kentucky man through and through. He was a captain on the Wildcats’ historic 1996 team under head coach Rick Pitino. He’s been a successful college coach at Utah Valley and BYU, but there are two things that makes this hire so stunning:

  • Pope has never won a conference championship
  • Pope has never won a game in the NCAA tournament

BYU got an at-large bid this season, earning a No. 6 seed in the big dance. That’s a serious accomplishment because it was the program’s first season in the Big 12, perhaps the toughest conference in college hoops. Still, they lost to a very mediocre No. 11 seed Duquesne team. Pope failed to make the tournament in his previous two seasons at BYU. He did make it back in 2021, but the Cougars lost in the first round to No. 11 seed UCLA — who went on to make the Final Four.

While Pope lacks a track record of postseason success, he certainly does run a beautiful offense. BYU finished No. 14 in offensive efficiency this season with a pace-and-space system build on whirling halfcourt sets. BYU took 50.4 percent of its field goals from three-point range, which ranked No. 4 in the country. It assisted on 63.6 percent of its made shots, which ranked No. 6 in the country. It played at the second fastest pace of any team in the Big 12.

In many ways, Pope is the exact opposite of Calipari. Calipari built elite rosters every year and was a generational hype man. He also wasn’t very strong on X’s and O’s. Pope’s tactical approach is outstanding, but can he build winning rosters? While Calipari shot for the best one-and-done freshmen in the country, Pope will likely need to hit the transfer portal hard every year and seek out veterans. The fact that college basketball was older than ever before with each player getting the ability to take an extra Covid year certainly didn’t help Calipari, but that’s also over after the 2024-25 season.

The big question for Kentucky is why they acted so fast to bring in Pope. The program could have gone after Billy Donovan, who won two national championships at Florida and was an assistant at Kentucky under Pitino. Donovan is currently coaching the Chicago Bulls, who are set to compete in the NBA play-in tournament. The Bulls’ season could be over Wednesday or Friday …. or the team could win two games and keep Donovan busy into the first round of the playoffs.

Kentucky obviously wanted to make a hire quickly with the transfer portal popping. Can Pope keep Reed Sheppard, a standout freshman this past season who is being projected as a top-10 2024 NBA Draft pick? Pope played college ball with Sheppard’s father, so maybe that’s a possibility. With Calipari’s star-studded recruiting class ditching their commitments and players like rising sophomore Aaron Bradshaw hitting the portal, Pope is in for a full-scale rebuild.

There’s a chance this hire works out well for Kentucky. Pope runs a much more modern offense than Calipari ever did. He understands the weight of Kentucky’s tradition as a former player. He will have a big NIL bag to work with. At 51 years old, he could be in it for a long-time if successful.

This still feels like a disappointing hire given the stakes at Kentucky, though. With Calipari back next year, UK would have had five-star freshmen everywhere and some top transfers lining up to play for a legendary coach. Maybe the Wildcats would have flamed out anyway because that’s what can happen in a single-elimination tournament. The floor with Pope may be higher, the ceiling sure feels a lot lower — at least right now.

Kentucky grade for hiring Mark Pope: C-

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