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4-Point Play: Are the final dominoes about to start falling?

Jack PIlgrimby:Jack Pilgrim05/13/24

You may have heard about Reed Sheppard stealing the show at the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago to open the event on Monday — he led the field in max vertical leap, tying a handful of others at 42 inches. The likes of Jaxson Robinson and Chaz Lanier also continue to explore the draft waters, inarguably the top two remaining options for Mark Pope and Kentucky to close out the 2024-25 roster that currently stands at 10 players.

How are things going back in Lexington, though? Pope broke things down on The College Hoops Today Podcast with Jon Rothstein, talking through the current roster and staff, along with some other news items including John Calipari’s return to Kentucky with Arkansas this upcoming season.

That makes up tonight’s 4-Point Play, another miniature state of the program address for Pope as we wait to see which dominoes fall next ahead of the new head coach’s debut season with the Wildcats.

A hand-picked roster that fits together ‘perfectly’

Robinson and Lanier are the top priorities to close out the roster, but what about the guys already signed up for next season? Pope is excited about them and the way they fit together as a cohesive unit.

As scary as the clean slate was to start with when he first arrived in Lexington, he’s thrilled at the product as currently constructed.

“This group that we’ve assembled has actually got way more experience than the team that we had last year at BYU,” Pope said. ” These guys are proven quantities, being in the NCAA Tournament multiple times, hitting game-winning shots to get to the national championship game, veteran guys who have played for a long time at the highest level. What’s been really fun is we kind of developed our style of play the way we like to approach this game. It was terrifying, but actually turned out to be a real blessing that we got to start from scratch here, where we got to kind of go hand-pick guys that we project as fitting perfectly into the way that we play.”

Pope added that as much as they like where things stand today, the staff’s focus is on adding a few more key pieces capable of bringing this group to a different level. And then from there, it’ll be about team-building once the players arrive on campus in June.

“And also not just the way we played last year, but also in some ways we want to really expand the genre of game that we played last year. I feel great about our roster right now. We have a couple of really, really important pieces that we still have to fit in, but on paper, I love us,” he said. “Starting June 10, we’ll get a real vision of what it looks like to have all these guys on the court together and see if we start building the connective tissue, the special sauce between players that actually makes you win. That part is the most enjoyable part of coaching and we’ll get to that part really soon.”

Who taught Mark Pope offense?

Pope has been described as an offensive guru with one of the most exciting playing styles in college basketball. Where does that come from? Well, Rick Pitino isn’t a bad place to start regarding top influences, putting together an all-time team in 1996 that Pope captained — as fun and entertaining a group you could dream up.

But he takes bits and pieces elsewhere, specifically from his own coaching staff, leaning on some of the brightest young minds in the game to do the heavy lifting.

“It’s my staff. You know, here’s the thing — my job essentially is to just go around and do interviews, and then my staff does all the heavy lifting. I’ve had great assistants,” Pope said. “Cody Fueger has had his fingerprints on our offense for a long time and he does an unbelievable job. I also need to give a shoutout to Keegan Brown, who was our director of analytics and strategy at BYU. He is a real, young talent in this game who encouraged us to push the envelope a little bit. Also the move to the Big 12 forced us to rethink how we were going to approach the game over the last few years.”

And then there are some other high-profile names and concepts who have helped mold this system into what it is today.

“And then there’s some influence from Coach Pitino for sure, some Coach Pitino flavor. In his reckless abandon aggressiveness from the three-point line, although we approach it differently,” Pope added. “And there’s probably some George Karl flavor in there also, then some Golden State pushing the envelope in the NBA. If you put all those together in a beautiful stew, that’s kind of what we’re trying to do. We’re excited about trying to keep pushing the envelope and I think we have the personnel to do it.”

Coach Cal’s return to Lexington is ‘great for basketball’

The SEC announced Monday that John Calipari wouldn’t be waiting long to make his anticipated return to Kentucky after taking the Arkansas job this offseason — the Wildcats will be hosting the Razorbacks in year one. It’s going to be weird seeing Coach Cal on the opposing sideline, but Pope believes it’ll be good for the game to embrace the change.

“I’ll forever be grateful to Coach Cal. I’ll be grateful for what he did at my alma mater here at the University of Kentucky. I’ll be grateful for what he’s done for — and not just when he was coaching here, mind you,” Pope said. “When I was playing here, he was the head coach at UMass and we had an unbelievable rivalry. You’ve got Marcus Camby and (Carmelo) Travieso, that group in the backcourt, we got to play each other in the Final Four.

“What he’s done for college basketball as a whole and what he’s specifically done for Kentucky basketball, I couldn’t appreciate it any more. And also how he’s been to me personally — he’s been so generous to me personally. There’s no reason for my heart to not be full of gratitude to him.”

At the end of the day, he’s a Hall of Famer for a reason, one of the best to ever do it. Having him be a new part of this intraconference rivalry between the Cats and Hawgs is something everyone in basketball should appreciate.

“He’s one of the greatest coaches to ever coach in college basketball, so for him to be in this league, it’s great for basketball. It’s gonna be great for Arkansas fans and certainly great for Big Blue Nation,” Pope added. “It’s gonna be a battle, it’s gonna have some things become super personal. It’s one thing to compete against somebody that you don’t know, it’s another thing competing against your brother. If you’ve ever done that in the backyard, that usually gets ugly because you love each other so much. I anticipate there’ll be some of that flavor in this with Coach Cal, for sure.”

Assistants name their basketball idols

What should you expect from Kentucky’s current staff group that includes the likes of Alvin Brooks III, Cody Fueger, Jason Hart and Mark Fox? Pope has already made it clear he leans on his assistants quite a bit, so it helps to know their respective backgrounds a bit.

Those four came together to share their own biggest inspirations in basketball on Monday, the specific people who pushed them to become who they are today as coaches.

All great answers, but it’s hard not to love what Brooks III had to say.

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2024-05-25