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4-Point Play: Mark Pope builds a staff and roster

Jack PIlgrimby:Jack Pilgrim04/15/24

Well, that was incredible. Mark Pope made his call-in radio show debut as the head coach at Kentucky and it was nothing short of a breath of fresh air, digging into the nuts and bolts of his coaching and recruiting philosophies, how his agreement with the Wildcats came together, expectations, denim uniforms and everything between. Fans concerned about his debut staff and roster in Lexington? Have no fear, he addressed it all in his hour-long sit-down with Tom Leach on Monday evening.

Missed the first-ever UK HealthCare Mark Pope Show? We’ve got you covered with notes tonight on 4-Point Play — which reminds me, I’ve got to update the graphic to include Kentucky’s new head coach.

It took six hours to finalize the deal

Pope joked during his introduction that he didn’t even let Mitch Barnhart finish his sentence before making it clear he was interested in the job. And then when conversations ramped up and became serious, it was a matter of hours before the two sides agreed to terms on the five-year agreement.

He woke up that morning a BYU Cougar and went to sleep a Kentucky Wildcat.

“I think Mitch knew the answer. Probably years and years ago, he was like, ‘You know what, if I have to go to this guy, and I bet he’ll say yes.’ It was really incredible.”

They jumped on a Zoom call where he “got to listen just as much as I got to talk.” Barnhart broke down what this program needed and where it was as a community, the recent trends, desires and needs.

“I think it was a foregone conclusion,” he said.

Sitting down with his wife and daughters, they went through the questions. Is this job too big? Is it too intimidating? Is it too scary? None of the above.

“There was actually no decision to be made here,” Pope said. “This is our lifetime dream as a family.”

How long did it all take? “The whole thing took less than — I mean, from start to finish, the Zoom to the final decision took us about six hours.”

And just like that, Mark Pope is the next head coach of the Cats.

When can we expect staff news?

So now what? It’s time to finalize a staff, then put their collective heads together to build a roster. The first step is coming shortly with official announcements expected this week if all goes as planned.

“I’m really excited about the possibilities for the staff,” Pope said. “I have a couple of guys that we’re right at the finish line, trying to finalize. Hopefully we’ll get that done here in the next several days and then we’ll kind of go from there.”

He’ll get his core group lined up and then look into other roles and filling out the rest.

“I’d like to put the core together and then kind of build out as we discover the spaces that we need to fill in,” he said. “There are so many people in this business that I admire and trust and have been working with for a long time.”

A big part of his rush? Work was lonely today hanging around the facilities by himself. He’s ready to fill those empty offices.

“I’d like to finish that sooner rather than later because today it was super lonely sitting in the office with nobody there,” Pope said. “In fact, Mitch and Mark (Hill) and Rock (Oliver), by the end of the day were like, ‘We think he’s lonely in there, let’s just go congregate around.’ So they kind of showed up. It’ll get full of life and joy soon.”

Prioritizing fit and being selective with roster additions

He’s multitasking a bit right now trying to get things across the finish line with his staff while also laying the foundation with his roster. What will he be looking for when the time comes to fill those spots and build a competitor in Lexington? We already know he has title dreams from day one, after all.

“What we’re really most importantly looking for is — we’re looking for great players with epic talent that can go hang a banner and that fit what Kentucky stands for. That’s actually a lot. That’s a lot and it’s going to be a very selective process. I don’t think it’s just about going out and getting the most raw talent. I think it’s about going out and getting the pieces that can fit together to form a team that is elite and dangerous. Teams are complicated, it’s like a perfectly put together stew. There’s a real artistry to it and that’s what we’re pursuing.”

What does that mean for young, up-and-coming talent? Does the “raw” phrasing shut that door as Pope looks to sign the best of the best in the transfer portal? It will be a mix of both, fit being the top priority with every piece they look to bring in.

That includes some talent who may already be connected to the Kentucky program.

“Yes, for sure (freshmen will still be considered),” he said. “You know, there’s some movement there. We’re also recruiting some guys that have been floating around this program. All doors are open right now.”

Pope prays that God calls Reed Sheppard back to Kentucky

The best guy who has been floating around this program? None other than the college roommate’s son of the Wildcats’ newest head coach, Laurel County’s finest. Sheppard is in the process of making his stay/go decision, facing the reality of being a top-10 draft selection vs. returning to school as the face of a new era of Kentucky basketball. You truly couldn’t put together a tougher scenario for an in-state standout.

And Pope knows just how difficult it is for Sheppard and won’t blame him either way.

“He’s going to be the fourth or fifth or sixth or seventh pick in the NBA Draft. And that is not something to be taken lightly. It’s really extraordinary,” Pope said. “So Reed, the way he’s going to be successful in his future is if he really searches inside himself and finds out where his heart is pulling him. In all honesty, Jeff, Stacey and Reed are very spiritual people. It’s where God is calling him and that’s just the truth.”

That doesn’t mean he’s not praying himself things go a certain way for Sheppard.

“I told Jeff, I’m spending a lot of time praying that God will call him back to Kentucky,” he said. “We’ll see how that goes.”

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