Sunday, June 23, 2024

Kentucky hires BYU’s Mark Pope as men’s basketball coach to replace John Calipari

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LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Initially off the radar among Kentucky’s coaching targets, Mark Pope is now entrusted with maintaining the program’s gold standard.

Makes sense, since he helped do so as a player.

Kentucky hired the BYU coach to guide its men’s basketball program, bringing home a captain of the Wildcats’ 1996 national championship team to succeed John Calipari.

The school announced the 51-year-old Pope’s hiring in a release Friday morning but did not mention any contract details. He will be introduced at a Sunday afternoon news conference at Rupp Arena.

Pope replaces Calipari, a Hall of Famer who took Kentucky to its eighth NCAA title in 2012 among four Final Four appearances in 15 years. Kentucky hasn’t returned there since going 38-1 in 2015. Calipari stepped down on Tuesday and was introduced as Arkansas coach the next day.

Pope was 110-52 in five seasons with the Cougars and went 23-11 in their first season in the Big 12 Conference. BYU is also coming off a second NCAA Tournament appearance in four years under Pope.

He was 77-56 before that in four seasons at Utah Valley and guided the Wolverines to consecutive runner-up finishes in the Western Athletic Conference his final two years. They reached the CBI quarterfinals both times.

Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart cited Pope’s impressive 187-108 career record as a head coach and keen knowledge of the program’s meaning to the state. The AD also praised Pope’s “dynamic” up-tempo offense and tough defense and called him an innovator.

“He is a strong recruiter with international ties and a person of integrity,” Barnhart said. “He fully embraces our high expectations and standards and I know that as our fans get reacquainted with Mark, they will be eager to join him on what promises to be an exciting ride.”

Pope said he understands the expectations of taking over college basketball’s winningest program and the high expectations that come with it.

“It’s the definition of blueblood program where hanging a banner is the expectation ever year,” Pope said. “Equally as important, UK changed my life forever as a human being. The love and passion I have for this program, this University and the people of the Commonwealth goes to the depth of my soul.”

Pope’s hiring is highly surprising considering the higher-profile coaches mentioned as Kentucky’s top candidates. But Baylor’s Scott Drew and UConn’s Dan Hurley, both of whom have led schools to NCAA titles, turned down offers on Thursday. Chicago Bulls coach Billy Donovan, a Kentucky assistant on that championship team before guiding Florida to consecutive NCAA titles, restated his commitment to the NBA club.

Pope faces his biggest task in returning his alma mater to national title contention after two first-round exits the past three seasons under Calipari. Kentucky’s last deep NCAA Tournament came in 2019, when the team lost to SEC rival Auburn in the Elite Eight.

Saint John’s coach Rick Pitino, a Hall of Famer who led Kentucky back from NCAA sanctions to that 1996 title, believes the school found the right candidate, saying Pope “will go on to greatness.”

“You have one of the premier young coaches in the game. Relish it because he will do you proud,” Pitino said in a video posted to social media. “I know I sit here today in Saint John’s and I couldn’t be any more proud than to see Mark Pope lead the Kentucky Wildcats to another championship. He’ll get it done. He’s got the right stock.”

Pope’s initial mission is rebuilding a roster that has already lost guard Rob Dillingham and 7-foot-1 Aaron Bradshaw to the NBA draft and Adou Thiero to the transfer portal. Several other players appear likely to follow Calipari to Arkansas, while several All-American signees have re-opened their commitments.

However it settles for Kentucky, Pope’s offensive philosophy mirrors the high-octane approach that helped the Wildcats rank second nationally at 89 points per game last season.

BYU wasn’t far behind, averaging 81.4 points to lead the Big 12 and rank 22nd nationally. The Cougars were third with 11.1 made 3-pointers and 18.5 assists, and sixth with a 1.73 assist-to-turnover ratio. They ranked as high as 12th in the AP Top 25 on Jan. 1 after going 12-1 in nonconference action and winning the Vegas Showdown.

Defensively, BYU tied for 104th of 351 Division I teams at nearly 70 points allowed per game and ranked 26th with 39.5 rebounds.

BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe thanked Pope in a post on X and said he “left the program in a position of strength moving forward.”

As a player, Pope led Kentucky with 6.3 rebounds per game during the 1994-95 season and was named to the Southeastern Conference All-Tournament team along with MVP Antoine Walker.

Pope played in the NBA from 1998-2005 with the Indiana Pacers, Milwaukee Bucks and Denver Nuggets.

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AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-basketball-poll and https://apnews.com/hub/college-basketball

Gary B. Graves, The Associated Press

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