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The Student News Site of Saint Xavier High School

Xavier News

The Student News Site of Saint Xavier High School

Xavier News

Kentucky Basketball’s Future with KSR’s Nick Roush

Jack Wheeler

The University of Kentucky’s basketball team was a blue-blood before John Calipari, and it will continue to be one after his departure. The Kentucky brand is, and always will be, bigger than any coach or player ever will be.

Calipari’s exit came with mixed emotions. The first ten years of his coaching tenure at Kentucky were some of the most impressive and successful in college basketball history, but his final five years at the university were some of the most disappointing seasons the program has ever seen. It was clear that there had to be a change. On March 27, 2024, UK Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart sat down with Coach Cal, and they discussed the future of the program publicly. Barnhart supported and backed Cal on everything he said, and it seemed like all was well within the walls of the program. However, on April 8, 2024, it was announced that John Calipari would be leaving Kentucky to coach at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. Although it was a shock, this separation was best for both sides. Kentucky will always recognize Coach Cal’s greatness and everything he has done for the program.

On April 12, 2024, the Kentucky basketball community, along with most of the nation, was in disbelief when the Wildcats hired former player Mark Pope. Most of the Kentucky fan base was confused, worried, and frustrated with the hire at first. Pope was successful at BYU, but he has never won a game in the NCAA tournament, leaving fans skeptical of the hire. After the Cats’ fans had time to cool down, the hire seemed more hopeful. Pope was a beloved player on the 1996 National Championship team, so the fan base wants nothing more than for him to succeed. He has the booster and fan support he needs, but can he win games at this high of a level? I interviewed Kentucky Sports Radio (KSR) journalist Nick Roush about this hire, how things really went down, and what Pope needs to do to be successful at such a prestigious program.

Photo courtesy of Nick Roush

There hasn’t been a great track record of success in recent years of hiring former players with mediocre coaching careers to take over big name programs. How will this Pope hire be successful?

Nick Roush: The difference between Pope and a lot of those other alma mater hires is that he actually has experience at the Power Five coaching level. Hubert Davis had success in his first year taking North Carolina to the National Championship, but he had just been an assistant coach, just like John Scheyer and just like Kenny Payne. He had zero head coaching experience. You also saw that with other legacy hires with Juwan Howard at Michigan. He had no experience at the college level, came from the NBA, and had some modern success before flaming out. I do think it matters that he’s been in the head coaching race before. I also think it’s important to note, too, that being the head coach at BYU comes with certain restrictions, particularly in the recruiting range. There’s obstacles to recruiting people to the Mormon flagship school. I think it’s fair to be skeptical of a nostalgia hire, hiring somebody that’s just in part because he played there. But I do think he has a solid resume elsewhere and brings a lot more to the table other than just the fact that he used to play basketball at Kentucky.

Do you think that Kentucky reached out realistically to any other candidates besides Hurley and Drew before offering it to Pope?

Nick Roush: It depends on your average reaching out. I think they had some fliers out there. But as Mitch Barnhart said, that pool of candidates is more like a puddle, especially when it comes to dealing with egos and dealing with representation and what  baggage comes with those other people. I do think they were intrigued by some other candidates, and they probably had some conversations with a few others, but none of them went as seriously as Mark Pope, who said on his coaches show Monday night that it only took about 6 hours of deliberating to get to that homestretch. It was clear in that second pool of candidates that Pope was the top guy. They had some other lines out, but they weren’t really fishing for any big fish.

Pope runs a very up-tempo offense and a fun play style. What is one thing Kentucky fans should know about his coaching style?

Nick Roush: There are a lot of people who, early on in the Nate Oats era, were pointing to him and saying, “We gotta run modern basketball like this, Kentucky’s got an archaic offense.” Well, Kentucky made that hire. They just didn’t hire the guy who went to the final four. They hired one of their own who was coaching at BYU. We’ve seen this happen more and more in college basketball, this analytically driven style of play where it’s five out, there’s a lot of movement, a lot of threes, and a lot of layups, but not a whole lot of mid-range jumpers. Florida last year, Todd Golden at San Francisco, he runs a similar style, and it had success in year two. That’s probably the path I would foresee for Kentucky, where it takes a while to find the skilled bigs that can play 20 feet from the basket and be able to pass the ball and cut. But I do think it is a very fun style that people are going to like a lot. But it comes with a sacrifice to get these skilled players who can shoot, who are skilled with the ball in their hands, whether it’s passing or dribbling, not as great as defenders. The defenses at BYU have not been great. His (John Calipari) best teams all had top 30 defenses. All of the Elite 8 teams had top 30 defenses, according to Ken Pom. That had been slacking, and they were in the top 60 range the last five years or so, with the only team coming close being Oscar Tsiebwe’s team. Their defensive ratings got goosed because he got so many rebounds back in 2022. You’re sacrificing some defense for some offensive benefits.

We know that the Pitino and Tubby era players will rally around Mark Pope, but how do you see Calapari’s ‘s ex-players responding to him leaving and a new coach now at Kentucky?

Nick Roush: They’ll all eventually come around. It’s not going to happen overnight, which you saw with Demarcus Cousins. But I think the sentiment John Wall shared that this is their school. It’s hard to put it in other words just because your coach left, he was going to leave at some point eventually. It might take them a little bit longer to come back, but I still think that they will be embraced by BBN and that their relationship will be reciprocated.

Do you think that this hire will be overall successful in the long run?

Nick Roush: I was hesitant initially. I drank all the Kool-Aid, and now that my heart has died down after the chaotic, crazy, rough-read intro, I feel like it’s going to level out to a point where even though the automatic success won’t happen right away, we’ll see Kentucky in the second weekend of the NCAA tournament. They’ll be competing for SEC Championships, where I think maybe four years down the road, you’re seeing Kentucky either knock on that door or go to a final four. I don’t know if he’s a national championship head coach, but I do think he’s going to take Kentucky to a final four. He’s going to win some SEC Championships. His greatest obstacle, I don’t think, is the recruiting aspect of it all; It’s the competition he’s got to go against. When John Calipari got to Kentucky, and it was Billy Donovan at Florida, Bruce Pearl at Tennessee, and a bunch of nobodies coaching in the league. This year, Florida was an outstanding team who very well could have made a run at the final four if they don’t get a player injured late. They were a 6 seed in the SEC tournament. It’s going to be a challenge in this league where there aren’t really any gimme wins. In Kentucky, they’ve always got a target on their back. It may take a little while to weather those storms. But ultimately, I think Mark Pope is going to be a fine coach who has a couple of appearances in the second weekend and ends up taking the catch to at least one five or four.

The beginning of a new era has officially begun in Lexington, and Cats fans have a lot to be excited about. The transformation from Calipari to Pope is a full 180-degree shift, but it might just be exactly what the program needs right now. The fan base is more united than it has been in a very long time. Have hope in Pope!

About the Contributor
Jack Wheeler
Jack Wheeler, Staff Writer
Jack is a senior who loves strapping on the blue apron at Kroger as a cashier. He bleeds blue and has been a Steelers fan since ’06. You can find him any given Saturday with Tyler Carr at Persimmon Ridge Country Club missing 3 foot putts. His favorite food is anything with beer cheese.
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