Kentucky taking massive gamble hiring an unproven coach in Mark Pope

FILE - BYU head coach Mark Pope talks to his players during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against UCF Wednesday, March 13, 2024, in Kansas City, Mo. Kentucky has hired BYU’s Mark Pope as men’s basketball coach, bringing home a member of the Wildcats’ 1996 national championship team to succeed John Calipari. The school announced Pope’s hiring in a release Friday morning, April 12, but did not mention any contract details. The 51-year-old Pope will be introduced at a later date, the release said. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)
Kentucky has hired Mark Pope as its next head coach. Pope, who spent the last five seasons at BYU, replaces John Calipari. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

The most scrutinized job in college basketball didn’t go to someone whose coaching résumé is littered with Sweet 16s and Final Fours.

Kentucky hired a men's coach who has yet to celebrate a conference title or win a single NCAA tournament game.

Into the unsparing Lexington limelight steps Mark Pope, a former Kentucky player who captained the program’s powerhouse 1996 national championship team. Pope has nine years of head coaching experience, building Utah Valley State into a winning program before posting five straight seasons of 19-plus wins at BYU.

Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart’s stunning decision to hire Pope raises obvious questions: Is this the best Kentucky could do? Would Barnhart have made this choice so early in the search if Pope wasn’t one of Kentucky’s own?

In fairness to Barnhart, the pool of splashy candidates available to Kentucky had already begun to shrink. Alabama's Nate Oats pulled his name out of consideration on Monday night even before John Calipari formally resigned. Baylor’s Scott Drew turned down Kentucky on Thursday morning, announcing that God called him and his family to remain in Waco (Texas). UConn’s Dan Hurley also passed on a big-money offer, reiterating that he was happier chasing a three-peat in Storrs.

And yet even with those names off the board, there were plenty of other established coaches for Barnhart to chase.

Could he not have waited until after the play-in round of the NBA playoffs to see if Billy Donovan had any interest in leaving the Chicago Bulls and returning to college basketball? That period of uncertainty might have cost Kentucky some of its potential top targets in the transfer portal, yet that's a small price to pay if Barnhart had realistic hope of landing a coach who once led Florida to back-to-back national titles.

Or, if Barnhart had heard through back channels that Donovan didn't want to return to college basketball, why didn't he reach out to see if Auburn’s Bruce Pearl might have been interested? Even at age 64, Pearl has the unusual blend of charisma, recruiting chops and winning track record to energize Big Blue Nation.

Will Wade would have been a shrewd choice if Barnhart could have stomached hiring a coach still serving an NCAA show-cause penalty. Heck, even 71-year-old Rick Pitino would have been an intriguing stop-gap, drawing in fans for a few years while buying the Kentucky administration time to find the right long-term choice.

Barnhart instead settled on a coach whose résumé is conspicuously thin compared to any of those other potential candidates. Pope didn’t come close to dethroning Gonzaga in four seasons in the West Coast Conference. Twice his teams also finished behind the likes of Saint Mary’s, Santa Clara and either San Francisco or Loyola Marymount.

The most encouraging accomplishment of Pope’s BYU tenure was how well prepared his team was for the transition to the rugged Big 12. A BYU team projected to come in second-to-last in the league instead finished tied for fifth with Kansas and earned the second NCAA tournament bid of Pope’s tenure.

Why would Barnhart take a massive gamble on Pope once Drew and Hurley said no? In a release announcing the hire, Barnhart cited Pope’s “impressive record,” his “love of the University of Kentucky” and his “complete understanding of what our program means to the people of our state.”

Left unsaid was another selling point: In some ways, Pope is the anti-Calipari, an innovator who runs a fast-paced, well-schooled offense and who is well respected by his peers for his Xs-and-Os acumen.

After his playing days were over, Pope completed two years of medical school at Columbia before returning to basketball and bouncing around as a college assistant. Along the way he developed a passion for modern offense and for analytics.

At BYU, Pope’s teams have always played with tempo and have always relied heavily on the 3-point shot. This past season’s 23-win team played a five-out system that capitalized on the unique talents of pass-first center Aly Khalifa.

That’s a stark contrast to Calipari, whose teams accumulated heaps of one-and-done talent but struggled in recent years to play to their potential. Calipari drew criticism for not adapting quickly enough to modern basketball, whether that was clogging the lane with two big men, not recruiting enough outside shooters or being slow to recognize that the sport was trending older.

Pope doesn't have experience wooing five-star prospects and one-and-dones like Calipari did, but he recruited well to BYU given that program's honor code and entrance requirements. He built his rosters with a combination of Utah high school prospects, international players and coveted transfers, from Matt Haarms, to Alex Barcello, to Jaxson Robinson.

One more positive about Pope is that his Kentucky roots could help him retain one of the Wildcats’ most beloved players. Pope was Jeff Sheppard’s roommate during his playing days with the Wildcats. Sheppard’s son Reed currently faces a decision whether to enter the NBA Draft or return to Kentucky for his sophomore season.

In the school’s release, Pope called Kentucky “the pinnacle of coaching in college basketball.”

“It’s the definition of blue-blood 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.”

Clearly, Pope would have crawled over hot coals to become the Kentucky coach. Which makes it all the more mystifying Barnhart didn’t wait a little longer to see if he could have first landed Donovan, Pearl or another proven option.

It’s hard to reel in a big name in this coaching market. But in this case it feels like Barnhart could have spent longer trying before taking a risk on Pope.