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4-Point Play: Mark Pope (virtually) hangs out with John Wall

Jack PIlgrimby:Jack Pilgrim06/20/24

John Wall has made it clear he won’t be picking sides between John Calipari and Kentucky following their offseason breakup, staying loyal to both. He’s driven that point time and time again, now bringing Mark Pope on as a guest on his podcast to talk about his start in Lexington and the start of practice at the Joe Craft Center.

Part of the conversation? Wall telling Pope he would be an ally moving forward, hanging around the program and helping out when needed, making it clear he was always a phone call away.

“I’m definitely going to come to games, for sure. You know that,” the Kentucky legend told Pope. “I’ve definitely got to continue my ritual of throwing up the Y. They’ll definitely get to see me.”

What else was discussed in the 30-minute conversation? KSR has you covered with some of the other notes from the show.

Pope thought the film was broken scouting Wall at Georgia

Remember when Pope left medical school to make pennies at Georgia as a director of basketball operations? That was the same year Wall made his grand entrance at Kentucky, a moment the new head coach remembers well — and not so fondly.

You see, when Pope wasn’t doing laundry and handing out towels in Athens, he was a film junkie both on his own and sitting in with the coaches. When the time came for the Bulldogs to take on the Wildcats, game-planning for Wall was an experience unlike any Pope had seen up to that point.

In fact, the tape was so ridiculous that he thought it was broken. Instead, it was just John Wall being John Wall.

“We’re prepping to go to Kentucky and we’re watching film, watching your individual clips. I swear this is not an exaggeration,” Pope told Wall. “You guys know how it was back in the day when you would have little glitches in the film where it’d be going normal speed and all of a sudden it would speed up to two times speed, then go back to normal? We’re watching a transition clip, and John, you started one step past the free throw line. You took one or two strides and then it was like, bluh-duh-duh!

“Then all of a sudden you were at the next free throw line, and we were like, ‘Wait, is the film broken?’ It was not broken, man. I mean, my gosh. Huge fan. Huge fan, my friend.”

Wall had 17 points, five assists and four rebounds in Georgia’s trip to Kentucky that day, in case you were curious.

Kentucky has ‘a lot of work to do’ in practice

Pope was asked about the start of practice for the Wildcats and how excited he is to see the pieces he assembled come together on the floor, his vision coming to life. He responded by sharing a story about the early days of his time in Lexington when the building was completely empty with no coaches or players officially signed on for year one.

That was an overwhelming time for the new head coach.

“John, you’ve been here, you can imagine this. I got here as the head coach and there were a couple of days where I was sitting here as the only coach on staff in the offices with zero players on the roster,” he told Walll. “And then we talked about the expectations in year one, there were a couple of moments I was like, ‘Wow, we’ve got a lot of work to do.'”

Fast forward a few months and he’s got a (nearly) full roster and staff, one he’s pretty darn proud of considering the circumstances of his late arrival and complete turnover. What he’s most proud of, though? Their passion and commitment as Kentucky Wildcats, embracing what it means to be here and wear that uniform.

“I love this staff, I can’t wait till you guys get on campus and meet the guys on my staff. I think it’s a really special group. And then I like these players a lot,” Pope said. “These guys, John, you’re gonna love these guys, man. When they put on this jersey, every single one of ’em, it and means something. It means something to put on the same jersey that you wore and all of these great players that came before you and after you wore. It means something to our guys to put this jersey on. And they’re incredibly committed, they’re gonna work hard.

“Finally getting to the point where we can practice where we have so much work to do to get to where our goal is, it’s almost an inconceivable amount of work. I do think we have special pieces. Every single one of these guys we could look at as a piece that could be special.”

A guy he’s personally excited for Wall to see as one of the most dynamic offensive threats to come through Lexington in recent memory? One of the best perimeter defenders in college basketball in San Diego State transfer Lamont Butler.

“I’ll tell you what I would have loved to have seen: Lamont Butler, who I think is probably the best defensive point guard in the country right now in his fifth year, try and spend some time guarding John Wall, the most electric point guard rookie in the country his freshman year,” Pope added. “Those kinds of battles, all of the generations kind of flowing together as I think about the greats that have been here. We’re really happy to have these guys on the court right now. They’re working hard and it’s good because we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

Replacing Cal was ‘dumb,’ but Pope plans to make Wall proud

Pope came to Kentucky at a time when the program had not been to a second weekend in the NCAA Tournament since 2019, a half-decade of fan restlessness building up to a toxic point of no return this offseason. And he does it bringing a grand total of zero postseason wins in his coaching career, following one of the biggest names the sport has ever seen.

Some would call Pope crazy for taking on this challenge. He’d call it dumb.

“I love this place like you can’t imagine. In terms of us filling in — come on, man. In college coaching, one of the oldest adages is you never take the job after John Wooden,” Pope told Wall. “I’m just dumb enough to take the job after all-time, revolutionary Hall of Famer, one of the greatest coaches to have ever walked on the face of the planet, John Calipari. That part is super humbling, but we understand the assignment. We understand the job and we’re going full speed ahead.”

It’s an honor, though, fighting to fill those massive shoes left behind by the man with 855 career wins, including 410 at Kentucky — especially when you consider the person Calipari is.

“I love Cal, Cal has been so incredibly gracious to me. When I started in coaching, Cal let me bring my Utah Valley team here and play him at Rupp Arena several years ago,” Pope said. “Every time I’ve seen him on the road, he’s been so gracious and encouraging. I was actually having a conversation with him two days before we found out publicly this job was open, then we were just at the SEC meetings (together). He’s one of the great coaches and human beings in this league.”

Sure, it’s scary. Terrifying, maybe. But it’s a challenge Pope embraces, promising to make Wall proud of his alma mater under his watch.

“How daunting this job is, there’s no place I’d rather be. Let’s take on this challenge and go,” Pope said. “John, we’re gonna make you proud, man. We’re going to make you proud of your alma mater. That’s my goal. I take that really personally and seriously.”

Pope takes every recruit to Rupp’s rafters

How does he relay the message to his players just how big this opportunity and the pressure that comes with it, whether they’re ready for it or not? Pope brings each one to the top of Rupp Arena for a brief history lesson, sharing stories of the great players to come through and what it’s like to be one himself.

“Rupp Arena is a sacred building to me. It’s just sacred. One thing I’ve done with every single recruit is we walk to the top. I’ll take the guys one at a time and just sit with them in the upper deck, all the way up — ten rows from the top,” Pope said. “John, I don’t know if Coach Cal ever made you go touch the wall, but Coach (Pitino) made us run up and touch the wall if we turned it over or whatever. ‘Go touch the wall!’ There were a lot of other words with that. It’s steep up there.

“But it’s something really special to go sit there in the quiet of that gym and just take in what it looks like from ten rows down from the top. We’ll spend some time and look at the jerseys up on the wall and talk about the history. It’s super special, man, I love it. I could do it every day for the rest of my life. I love it so much to be in that building and look at those banners up on the wall.”

Another thing he does? He talks about the people sitting in those seats, the ones who pour everything into being there and supporting this program. Sometimes it’s their first time in attendance, many times it’s all they can afford, investing in lifelong memories.

Pope wants his players to feel that from Rupp Arena’s rafters.

“We talk about the people who come and sit in those seats, people who have spent their whole lifetime cheering for Kentucky and this is the first time they’ve gotten to sit in those seats,” he said. “When our fans get to think about that and understand that, that’s the beginning of them starting to comprehend what BBN is it’s unique in the landscape of athletics that we get to compete for these people.”

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