Mark Pope, at 51 years old, is almost a year and a half older than John Calipari was when he took over at Kentucky. Pope is almost 6 years older than Tubby Smith was when he took over the Wildcats. Pope is nearly 15 years older than Rick Pitino was when he assumed one of the top jobs in college basketball. And Pope is almost 23 years older than Adolph Rupp was when he began a career that would make Kentucky one of the top jobs in college basketball.

It’s easy to think of him as a green option for Kentucky, but he’s already been a head coach at the Division I level for 9 years. He’s a veteran of the game, after a professional career that spanned nearly a decade. He doesn’t yet have an NCAA Tournament victory to his name, but Rupp was coaching high schoolers in Illinois before the Kentucky gig.

Is he an underwhelming hire? Some think so. But if he fails, that won’t be the reason why.

Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart did Pope no favors in all this.

Big Blue Nation was sold dreams of Dan Hurley and Scott Drew. One has won 12 consecutive NCAA Tournament games and 2 titles, the other took a program out of the gutter and won a title himself.

If those 2 were unattainable, Billy Donovan was said to be waiting with open arms, eager to leave his NBA gig to return to a college game that has been radically and fundamentally altered in the decade since he left.

With reports that Kentucky could offer Hurley the biggest bag anyone in college basketball had ever seen, going from there to here is enough to give someone whiplash.

Fans, expectedly, were vociferous in their displeasure.

If Pope is the right man for the job, Barnhart will know relatively quickly. And he’ll feel vindicated that he got his man on the come-up, and Pope will feel emboldened that Kentucky believed in him when others didn’t.

If for whatever reason Pope isn’t the guy to fix what Calipari mucked up, well then Barnhart will know that relatively quickly as well. And he can move on and chase after Hurley when the price tag isn’t as high.

It’s not fair to compare Pope to Hurley, or to Rupp for that matter. We have no clue how he’ll do in Lexington. Beloved sons return to programs and fail. Some take over at their alma mater and do wonders.

For now, here’s what we do know about Kentucky’s 23rd head basketball coach.

He’s a champion and a pro

Pope played 2 years of college ball at Washington before he transferred to Kentucky and captained Rick Pitino’s 1996 national championship team. A 6-foot-10 center, Pope averaged 15 points, 10.2 rebounds, 2.0 steals, and 2.4 blocks per 40 minutes during that final season. He started 6 times and played in all 36 games.

Following that season, Pope was drafted in the second round by the Indiana Pacers. He played 2 seasons for the Pacers, played 2 seasons for the Milwaukee Bucks, and played in pieces of 2 seasons for the Denver Nuggets.

In 2005, his playing career ended and he briefly went to medical school. He joined Georgia’s staff as an assistant, bounced to Wake Forest for 2 years, then went to BYU (2011-15) to sit on Dave Rose’s bench. In 2015, he got his first gig at Utah Valley.

“What you don’t realize (is) it took Jay Wright 11 years to finally get an NCAA win. Billy Donovan was at Marshall for 2 years, didn’t have an NCAA appearance. He went on to greatness. Mark Pope will go on to greatness,” Pitino said in a video shared on social media Friday.

“You have one of the premier young coaches in the game. Relish it because he will do you proud. I know I sit here today at St. 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.”

Now, is it fair to say Pope has this job in part because he played at Kentucky? Certainly. Take his résumé and change the alma mater to any other school and he probably doesn’t get a phone call from Barnhart.

But Pitino believes in him and you can bet the 2 men have already had a conversation about this job — about what it takes, about what it needs, about how taxing it can be. Pope knows what the program means to the fanbase and to the state because he’s lived it.

As Pitino said, he understands what it means to have “Kentucky” across the chest.

In a program designed to be an NBA feeder school, you might not have that same level of appreciation. In a program designed to win national championships for Kentucky, it’ll be different. Expect Pope to run the latter.

Related: FanDuel is currently running some “Calipari Specials” in light of his move to Arkansas. Want to back Mark Pope’s team to beat Arkansas when Calipari returns to Rupp Arena next season?FanDuel has that prop priced at -162. A Kentucky win at Bud Walton Arena next season is +170.  

FanDuel Sportsbook

States: MD, LA, KS, NY, NJ, PA, IN, IA, WV, MI, VA, CT


21+ and present in a state with legal sports gaming. Gambling problem? Call 1-800-Gambler.

BET $5
GET $150



Few play offense quite like Pope

This season, BYU became just the fourth high-major team in the KenPom era (1997-present) to shoot more 3-pointers than 2-pointers in a single season. The Cougars posted a 3-point shot rate of 50.4%, taking nearly 1,100 3-pointers in 34 games — about half of what Jack Gohlke hit for Oakland in the tournament’s first round.

BYU wasn’t an elite 3-point shooting team by any stretch, but it still finished top-15 in KenPom’s adjusted efficiency metric because of the sheer volume.

This wasn’t like Alabama, where the diet is all 3s and close 2s. According to BartTorvik, BYU still got 22% of its shots from non-paint 2s. It didn’t shoot that particular range very well (39%) but Pope didn’t completely erase that part of the floor from BYU’s offense.

Which also meant the Cougars had one of the lowest rates at the rim of any team in the country. Only 28% of BYU’s attempts were classified as “close 2s” by BartTorvik. (Alabama, for reference, was at 42%.)

To that see that kind of style from a former center is interesting on its own. But Pope — a Rhode Scholar candidate and one-time medical student at Columbia — has a brilliant basketball mind and has been able to craft a style that worked despite the obvious disadvantages he had at BYU.

The Cougars were a top-25 rebounding team in the country. And that strength on the glass helped to fuel what was a lethal transition game.

In transition, the Cougars shot 38% from the 3-point line on high volume. Typically, you’ll see teams rim run and try to get either an easy shot or force their way to the foul line. BYU kicks ahead to players who run to the wings and the corners for 3s. Of the Cougars’ transition shot attempts, 59% came from beyond the arc.

Two out of every 3 shot attempts that occurred within 10 seconds of a rebound being secured were from deep. A team effort on the glass helped ignite transition opportunities, which was where a third of the team’s overall attempts came from.

Seven players averaged at least 3 rebounds and no one averaged more than 6.3. Four players averaged at least 1.5 assists per game. BYU’s assist rate of 63.4% was the sixth-best in the country. And 5 players averaged at least 4 attempts from 3 per game.

The shots came from everywhere, all the time. Everyone can make the pass. Everyone can screen. Everyone can pop a 3.

It’s a continuity ball screen offense and Pope’s players keep their spacing well. Because 6-foot-10 forward Aly Khalifa (who plays the 5 for BYU) can shoot the 3 even in transition, BYU can stretch a defense out completely and open up backdoor opportunities for cutters.

They’ll run teams around the floor through numerous screens in halfcourt sets and wait for a breakdown or a lapse. You’ll see help defenders completely give up the lane to avoid the kick-out 3 on dribble penetration, and you’ll see weakside defenders glued to their man at the expense of an open layup.

“They’re just different than everybody you play because of the 3-point line,” Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said this year.

Trend or something else?

The fun question here is whether BYU’s 2023-24 profile is the way Pope consistently wants to play or was something dictated by his roster.

In Pope’s first year, the Cougars got 41% of their shots from 3 and 33% of their shots on long 2s. In Year 2, the 3-point rate was even lower at 39%. In Year 3, BYU took just 37% of its shots from 3. During Pope’s fourth year, BYU took 40% of its shots from 3.

So, up until this season when the Cougars moved into the Big 12, you had a team that was comfortable taking non-paint 2s and shooting 3s at a decent rate but not anywhere close to what we saw from BYU this year. The talent gap played a part in this as BYU was adjusting to its new home.

The Big 12 has been the toughest conference in basketball for 3 years straight (per KenPom).

But it largely worked! BYU had a 15-point win over then-No. 24 Iowa State in February. It beat then-No. 11 Baylor by 7 in February. A week later, it beat then-No. 7 Kansas by 8 on the road. Pope’s style made BYU one of college basketball’s most watchable teams. That’ll certainly open some doors on the recruiting trail.

Not that many doors are closed to Kentucky on the trail. Pope will have access to prospects he simply couldn’t reach before. During a radio interview on KSR Friday morning, Barnhart said Pope has already had conversations with 2 players who weren’t interested in playing for him at BYU but are now that he’s at Kentucky.

(We sort of just have to take his word for it, but the premise isn’t hard to believe.)

Does he load up on 3-point shooters (hello, Reed Sheppard) and look for someone like Aly Khalifa or the 6-11 Noah Waterman who can shoot and move out on the perimeter? Or does he scale it back a bit?

Cameron Drummond of the Lexington Herald-Leader put together an extensive list of Pope’s recruiting at BYU. At a school in Kentucky that has produced 12 top-5 recruiting classes since 2011 and 6 top-ranked classes over the same span, Pope will have to recruit well to keep his job. There’s a certain standard to be met.

At the same time, there’s a bit more nuance to recruiting than what we’ve seen under Calipari. Finding the right talent that fits the system is just as important as finding the best talent. Calipari built teams. Pope’s long-term outlook will be determined more by his ability to build a program.

Related: The NBA Playoffs are right around the corner. Get signed up with one of our top recommended daily fantasy apps to find out how you can score big this postseason.