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4-Point Play: Coach Cal calls Mark Pope a 'terrific hire' for Kentucky

Jack PIlgrimby:Jack Pilgrim05/29/24

If you thought this would be a bitter coaching rivalry between Mark Pope and Coach Cal following what has been an all-time whirlwind of an offseason, think again. In fact, the Southeastern Conference foes have been about as warm as imaginable given the circumstances, Pope to Kentucky and John Calipari to Arkansas.

“So appreciative of everything that John Calipari did,” Pope told ESPN shortly after his move to Lexington. “John revolutionized a lot of things in the way recruiting is done and style of play in college basketball. What he did at Kentucky is really incredible. We are all so grateful for that.”

From there, the two were chummy in Indianapolis at the first live period of the recruiting cycle, sharing hugs and laughs amid thousands of coaches in attendance at EYBL Session III. They stood side-by-side checking out high-profile prospects in attendance, shaking hands and exchanging nods every time they saw each other throughout the weekend.

Nothing but love between the current and former Kentucky coaches.

Coach Cal calls Mark Pope a ‘terrific hire’

We got (very) brief thoughts from Calipari on Pope earlier this month when he took to social media to share one final goodbye with Big Blue Nation.

“I like and respect Coach Pope. He and his staff will have success,” he said at the time — short and sweet. Now, he’s gone a bit further, explaining at the SEC Spring Meetings in Destin that his successor is undoubtedly the man for the job.

“I thought it was a terrific hire,” Calipari said. “[At the Final Four] he couldn’t have been more proud of what Kentucky was doing. Didn’t know he would be the coach at that point, but I think it’s a terrific hire.”

Calipari brings new ‘formula’ to Fayetteville

Pope’s move to Kentucky wasn’t the only thing Calipari brought up in Destin. The new Arkansas coach also talked about roster construction and how things will go moving forward in Fayetteville.

Remember when Coach Cal zigged with young talent while the rest of college basketball zagged with old, experienced pieces this past season? He says the way he built his team last year just doesn’t work anymore.

“The lesson was you can’t do this now with seven freshmen,” Calipari said. “You just can’t. You’re going to hit a team that’s 25 years old on average, one was 26, and that team is physically going to get you, and so now we have a couple transfers that are older, some kids that transferred from Kentucky that went through it, and they’re a year older, and some freshmen.”

Only nine players?

Kentucky had a roster with 11 guys included in the rotation at any given moment this past season, 10 who finished the year averaging at least 11 minutes per contest. The moving parts got hectic, especially in the frontcourt with the trio of 7-footers.

That won’t be happening moving forward in Fayetteville. Instead, he’s not only cutting the rotation down, but scholarship numbers overall. He’s got eight players on the roster now and plans to add just one more before calling it an offseason.

Calipari doesn’t want to tempt himself.

“The ninth? It depends on who it is,” he said. “That’s what we’re looking for. Is it a shooter? Is it a 4-man that could shoot? Is it a strong physical [presence]? Is it a defensive guy? Or just right now I can breathe because we got eight and I’m hoping there’ll be nine. But what if there’s not? Somebody said, ‘Well, what if you have injuries?’ If the wrong guy gets injured on any team in this country, you’re done.”

Keep the neutral site games coming

Calipari was never shy about his love for neutral site games at Kentucky, pushing for those over home-and-homes whenever possible. We thought we were living in an alternate reality when the six-year series with Gonzaga was scheduled — although only three of those games will be true home matchups, one being this past season at Rupp Arena.

As Pope works out home-and-homes with Rick Pitino among other fun scheduling additions, Calipari is going back to the neutral-site well with three on the docket in his debut season with the Razorbacks.

Among them? Dallas, Little Rock and Madison Square Garden.

 “You need national games. You’ve got to play in Madison Square Garden,” he said, adding “most of the stuff is done” in terms of potential opponents.

The only matchup we care about is the one scheduled between Kentucky and Arkansas in Lexington.

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