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4-Point Play: Mark Pope goes on a local TV tour

Jack PIlgrimby:Jack Pilgrim06/14/24

This weekend is a busy one for Mark Pope and the Kentucky Wildcats. It starts with the Father/Son Camp from Friday to Saturday, followed by the Father/Daughter Camp on Sunday — a new Father’s Day tradition in Lexington. Smack dab between those two events is the Club Blue NEW ERA men’s basketball event early Saturday afternoon, the first meet-and-greet for fans to hang out with Pope, his coaching staff and the entire 2024-25 roster.

Before the chaos, though, Pope went on a miniature media tour with the local TV stations in Lexington and Louisville, sharing his thoughts on his first few months on the job and what’s to come in year one with the Wildcats.

How about a few highlights from each appearance with WHAS, WDRB, LEX18 and FOX56? Coming right up on today’s 4-Point Play.

The importance of the Louisville rivalry

As a former national championship player and team captain for the Wildcats, Pope has to have deep hatred in his bones for Pat Kelsey and the Louisville basketball program, right?

Well, not exactly. That’s not to say he doesn’t want to beat the Cardinals or plans to take it easy on them, but he does like Kelsey and is certainly a fan of Aly Khalifa and Noah Waterman, two BYU transfers who signed with Louisville.

“I love Pat, man. I actually love him. He’s a hard-driving, on it 24/7 guy. I love him, actually, and I’ve got a ton of respect for him. That’s the beauty of this Kentucky-Louisville deal, and he’s got a couple players that I love dearly,” Pope told Kent Spencer of WHAS 11. “These are two guys I got to witness go sacrifice and grow and commit in a brilliant way. I love all of those dynamics because that is what Kentucky-Louisville is supposed to be.”

He appreciates the rivalry and wants both teams to be great so the matchups are epic, like two brothers throwing haymakers in the backyard.

“Kentucky-Louisville is a brawl, it is like brothers going in the backyard and getting after it. I love everything about it,” he said. “I want Louisville to be great because that’s what makes this rivalry great.”

Taking the greatest job in basketball

Pope is grateful for his start at Utah Valley and the opportunity to coach high-major basketball for the first time with BYU in the Big 12. That doesn’t mean, though, he hasn’t had his eye on the Kentucky job from the minute he decided to leave medical school to get into coaching.

This is the ultimate prize, one he never imagined he’d actually land.

“Yeah, I mean, Kentucky is the job. This is the pinnacle of of coaching in every level, actually. But you don’t think it’s going to happen. You don’t get this opportunity. Nobody gets this opportunity. No one gets to coach Kentucky,” Pope told WDRB’s Tyler Greever. “And so, its kind of like the definition of coaching. You think about it: The greatest job in all of basketball is coaching Kentucky.

“And then, you kind of go down the road and you think about all these great jobs that are afterward, then mid-tier jobs. But you just don’t think you’re getting a chance to do the best job ever.”

Jaxson Robinson among nation’s “most dangerous offensive players”

What did it mean to land his star transfer from BYU, Robinson ultimately deciding to pull his name out of the draft and sign with Kentucky?

“Really special and really important,” Pope told Maggie Davis of BBN Tonight. “Jaxson would have been drafted this year. He was clearly in the draft (range), he just wasn’t exactly sure where he would be drafted. But he has proven that is the player he is. He’s been with me for two years, we’ve gone through a real growth cycle at BYU. He knows us.”

On the floor, he’s a clear star talent, one capable of elevating this team’s ceiling to new heights. What separates this get from others, though, is the familiarity aspect and the fact that Robinson is a guaranteed system fit. There is no risk in bringing the BYU transfer over from Provo. You know exactly what he’s going to bring to the table as a player, at minimum.

“He’s important for a lot of reasons,” Pope added. “One, he’s a great player and he’s a pro. Two, he’s one of the most dangerous offensive players in all of college basketball, proven. Three, because he has the potential to be an elite, elite level defensive presence on the court. And four, most importantly for me and maybe for our team and our locker room is he knows me. He knows how we play, the only guy on this roster that has actually played the kind of unique and pushing style of play that we do. He’s gonna be a great advocate and interpreter of what we do and how we do it.”

Pope admits that he’s a little selfish with this decision, knowing it was one he wanted from day one. He gets to coach his star wing for a third and final season of college basketball — it doesn’t get much better than that.

“For all of those reasons, it’s really important that he’s on this roster,” he said. “And for me personally, the fact that I get to have a third year to kind of watch his growth continue. Really selfishly, that is exciting for me.”

Love for Coach Cal

How about the elephant (or Razorback) in the room? Pope wants to make it clear that he loves John Calipari and what he did for his alma mater coaching in Lexington for 15 seasons. And he believes fans do and will continue to do so moving forward, as well.

“I know exactly the way Big Blue Nation feels about Cal. We love him,” he told Michael Epps of FOX56. “If you think about his tenure here, what he accomplished in his tenure here is extraordinary. Just like every coach that came before him, Tubby (Smith) in his own way, Coach (Rick) Pitino for sure, Joe B. (Hall), you go down the list, every single one of those coaches had a hand in redirecting the flow and trend of college basketball as a whole. Certainly, Cal did that.”

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