Mark Pope worthy Kentucky coach even without any NCAA Tournament wins

Mark Pope?

Mark (fill in the proper adjective of your mood) Pope!

Mark Pope.

News that Kentucky’s 1996 national championship team captain will return home as the Wildcats’ new head coach to replace John Calipari has elicited mixed reactions.

Some are puzzled by how fast UK athletics director Mitch Barnhart could swing from pursuing a coach with bona fides, like Baylor’s 2021 national title popping off Scott Drew’s resume down to offering a coach who’s never won an NCAA Tournament game.

He’s not a splash hire unless it’s the sound of fans jumping ship.

In nine seasons — four at Utah Valley and the last five at BYU — Pope made two tournament appearances with the Cougars. Both as a six seed. Both ended with the Cougars being first round casualties, including last month’s 71-67 loss to Duquesne.

Pope’s teams have never won a conference crown, in the regular season or the tournament. There’s trepidation that his lack of a signature accomplishment means UK could be headed down a similar path as Louisville’s last two years with Kenny Payne.

Just looking at what Pope hasn’t done is the wrong way to frame the hire. What he lacks in sex appeal he makes up for in substance.

Staying “within the family” and hiring alumni continues to be the trend at some of college basketball’s traditional powers and Pope is actually the most proven among them.

Hubert Davis had never been a head coach before replacing Hall of Famer Roy Williams at North Carolina three years ago. The Tar Heels made the Final Four in Davis’ first season, won the ACC regular season title this year and were a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. 

Jon Scheyer had never been a head coach before replacing Hall of Famer Mike Krzyzewski at Duke two years ago. Scheyer won the ACC Tournament title his first year, reached the Elite Eight this season and has signed the No. 1 recruiting class, according to 247 Sports, two of the past three seasons. 

Adrian Autry had never been a head coach before replacing Hall of Famer Jim Boeheim at Syracuse last year. Autry led a team picked to finish 10th in the ACC preseason poll to being tied with Clemson and Wake Forest for fifth in the final league standings.

The early returns are a success for all three, although a hard verdict has yet to be rendered, especially at Carolina and Duke, where postseason success will ultimately be how Davis and Scheyer are judged. 

Pope will be held to that standard as well at Kentucky. 

Davis, Scheyer and Autry had a built-in advantage having served on their respective staffs prior to taking over as head coach.

Pope clearly won’t have that going for him at UK. He’ll have to learn and recruit the current players eligible to return. He’ll have to try and get those freshmen who signed a Letter of Intent to stay committed. He’ll then have to quickly pivot to address holes in the roster through the transfer portal or high school. 

Pope has nine seasons of roster management experience. That’s more than enough time to develop a system of how to approach constructing a team so he can move on it immediately and without hesitation.

For UK fans who enjoyed the way Calipari finally embraced a modern-day approach to offense this past season, Pope has been running five-out offenses that utilize the 3-point line. 

His teams ranked No. 1 in 3-point shooting percentage in their respective conferences four of his nine seasons as a head coach.

Pope also has crafted a philosophy through those nine years that has helped his teams consistently be near the top offensively. BYU was 14th nationally in adjusted offense according to, marking the third time in his five seasons it ranked in the top 25. 

Williams, Krzyżewski and Boeheim essentially hand-picked their successors and those endorsements at least helped earn some benefit of doubt for Davis, Scheyer and Autry before they proved themselves on the court.

Pope should receive the same wait-and-see approach from the UK faithful. He may be a success. He may try and fail, but there’s no need to assume what he can or can’t do. Let Pope’s results fill in the blank on how to feel about his tenure.

Reach sports columnist C.L. Brown at [email protected], follow him on X at @CLBrownHoops and subscribe to his newsletter to make sure you never miss one of his columns.


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