Kentucky hires Mark Pope to replace Calipari

Kentucky hires Mark Pope to replace Calipari

After striking out on Alabama’s Nate Oats, Baylor’s Scott Drew and UConn’s Dan Hurley, in addition to getting hints from Jay Wright and Billy Donovan that they weren’t interested either, Kentucky AD Mitch Barnhart hired BYU’s Mark Pope to replace John Calipari as the program’s next men’s head basketball coach.

Pope played for the Wildcats in 1995 and 1996, helping them win two SEC championships and one national title during Rick Pitino’s reign in Lexington. He was a captain on UK’s 1996 squad that won it all.

The 51-year-old Pope played six seasons in the NBA before getting into coaching, with his first gig coming as an assistant at Georgia. After one year in Athens, he spent one season on Wake Forest’s staff before being hired by Dave Rose as an assistant at BYU.

Pope spent four years in Provo before landing his first head-coaching job at Utah Valley. In four seasons with the Wolverines, he took them to the CBI Tournament three times. Pope’s records during his four-year tenure at Utah Valley were 12-18, 17-17, 23-11 and 25-10.

When Rose retired in March of 2019, Pope was plucked to become BYU’s next head coach. His first team with the Cougars finished 24-8 overall and 13-3 in West Coast Conference play to finish second in the league. However, the NCAA Tournament was cancelled due to the global pandemic.

Pope led BYU to the 2021 NCAA Tournament with a No. 6 seed in the second season of his tenure. The Cougars went 20-7 overall and 10-3 in WCC action, but they lost a 73-62 decision to 11th-seeded UCLA in the opening round at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

In Year 3, BYU won a pair of NIT games before bowing out in the quarterfinals. The Cougars finished 24-11 overall and 9-6 in league games.

The only season at BYU during his five-year tenure that Pope’s squad failed to win 20 games was 2022-23, when it compiled a 19-15 overall record and had a losing record (7-9) in the WCC.

Therefore, most pundits didn’t expect much to go well for the Cougars in their transition to the Big 12 Conference in 2023-24. In fact, Lindy’s preseason magazine predicted that BYU would finish 11th out of 14 schools.

Instead, Pope led BYU to a fifth-place tie in the Big 12 with a 10-8 conference record. The Cougars went 23-11 overall, but they lost 71-67 to 11th-seeded Duquesne in the first round of the 2024 NCAA Tournament.

Although Pope is 0-2 in NCAA Tournament games, he’s taken six of his nine teams to the postseason, and it would’ve been seven if not for COVID-19. He owns a 187-108 overall record (63.4%) as a head coach.

The Kentucky fan base – affectionately known as Big Blue Nation or simply ‘BBN’ – wasn’t pleased when the initial reports filtered out last night that UK was targeting Pope. However, that tone has simmered down quite a bit over the last 18 hours.

Pope and Jeff Sheppard were roommates when they were key players on the ’96 team that won a natty. Jeff’s son, Reed Sheppard, is projected as a lottery pick after enjoying an outstanding freshman campaign for the ‘Cats in 2023-24.

I think there’s a good chance that Pope can talk Sheppard into returning to UK for his sophomore season and, if he can do so, he’ll instantly earn the respect of BBN.

For what it’s worth, former UK and current St. John’s HC Rick Pitino, who talked Pope into leaving Washington and transferring to Kentucky in the ’90s, has endorsed the hire and even went so far as to say he’d donate NIL money. Also, Barnhart said in an interview earlier today that the program has seen an influx of $4 million to go towards NIL recently.

Pope is reportedly signing a five-year contract, but terms of the deal have not been released by the school yet. His presser at Rupp Arena is going to be open to the fan base and will be held Sunday at 4:30 p.m. Eastern.

For more of my thoughts on the coaching changes at Kentucky and Arkansas, you can check out ‘Bets and Ballgames with Edwards and Greeson’ on the Southeastern14 YouTube channel.