Kentucky to hire BYU’s Mark Pope as next head coach, but he’ll need help to succeed

Kentucky didn't land the big-name hire to replace John Calipari, but they may have gotten something better. If they're willing to support Pope and make a radical change to the program.
Brigham Young Cougars head coach Mark Pope
Brigham Young Cougars head coach Mark Pope / Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

Scott Drew appeared to be Kentucky’s top candidate to replace John Calipari, but once Drew announced that he’d be returning to Baylor, the options started to thin. There weren’t many proven winners who were willing to leave their current situation, so instead, Kentucky is betting on a 51-year-old up-and-coming offensive innovator. 

Mark Pope is expected to be hired as Kentucky’s next head coach. He has spent the last five seasons at BYU and ushered the Cougars into the Big 12 this season by leading them to the NCAA Tournament for the second time in his tenure and 32nd time in the school’s history. Pope’s Cougars went 10-8 in Big 12 play and were awarded a No. 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament, but like Kentucky, were bounced in the first round, getting upset by Atlantic 10 champion Duquesne. 

Pope will return to Lexington 30 years after transferring from Washington to play for the Wildcats. In 1996, Pope led Kentucky to a National Championship as a team captain under head coach Rick Pitino, who was interested in a second stint as the head coach of Kentucky.

Towards the end of his tenure, Calipari received criticism for his style of play, relying heavily on dribble-drive and traditional big men, instead of hunting three-point shots as more analytically-driven programs do. A shift in philosophy was part of what made Alabama’s Nate Oats an appealing candidate for Kentucky, and they’re getting the same thing with Pope, though he’s still unproven at the high-major level. 

Last season, BYU shot 32.0 three-pointers a game, the most of any team in the country and 41% of the team’s points came from three-pointers. The Cougars shot 35.0% from three for the season, which is the biggest reason a team that was built to play in the West Coast Conference finished fifth in the loaded Big 12, ahead of Kansas. 

Many Kentucky fans will be upset by this news. He’s not the big name that Big Blue Nation wanted and he doesn’t have a national title on his resume, but he’s the change the program needed from an on-court perspective and if he can recruit at a high level, his system can elevate talent. 

Mitch Barnhart went after the best in-game head coach available, not the best recruiter, which could signal a massive shift in the program going forward. The job of a college basketball head coach has changed. With the NIL and transfer portal era, it’s time for programs to employ a general manager to help construct the roster and manage the portal. To make this hire a home run, Kentucky needs to build up the infrastructure around Pope to help him succeed.

Next. The 10 best one-and-done players of the Calipari era. The 10 best one-and-done players of the Calipari era. dark