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Kentucky helped Tounde Yessoufou fall in love with basketball, Mark Pope makes major first impression

Jack PIlgrimby:Jack Pilgrim05/20/24

Tounde Yessoufou can’t tell his basketball story without including the Kentucky Wildcats. A native of Benin in West Africa, the top-20 prospect in the class of 2025 started playing basketball when he was 10 years old, sparking his move to the United States to pursue his dream of doing it professionally. He arrived shortly before his freshman year at St. Joseph High School in Santa Maria, California just three years ago with his eyes on Lexington.

“Nobody in my family ever played basketball, I just saw it and loved it,” the 6-6 forward said. “I knew I wanted to put my heart into it. Coming to the United States, Kentucky was definitely the main thing I watched on social media and doing my research. I feel like it’s a great opportunity to be around people like that.”

Now, that was under then-coach John Calipari and the turnstile of NBA talent he had coming and going through the program for a decade and a half. His love for the program extended beyond who was leading it, though, also developing a soft spot in his heart for the fans and culture.

“Definitely by the way Coach Cal was playing, and not only Coach Cal, but just the environment. You can tell it’s a great environment with the fans, everybody loves it,” he said of how his interest in Kentucky began. “I have no idea how many people are in (Rupp Arena) during those games, but it’s a lot. And not only the campus, but outside the campus, I just love being around people like that.”

Things have changed in Lexington, though. Calipari has moved his headquarters to Fayetteville to lead the Arkansas Razorbacks while Mark Pope is the new head coach at Kentucky.

And he made sure to make his presence felt early, specifically with Yessoufou.

In Pope’s first live period as the coach of the Wildcats, he was front and center for all of the soon-to-be five-star’s games at EYBL Session III in Indianapolis this past weekend. That came after reaching out shortly after Session II in Atlanta earlier this month and beginning the relationship-building process from there.

“We’re bonding and building a great relationship,” Yessoufou told KSR. “They definitely love the way I play hard. You can tell when I step on the floor, I play hard and try to destroy anybody in front of me. They love my energy.”

The top-20 prospect noticed Pope sitting front and center for his first game in Indianapolis — and each one after. He also appreciated the FaceTime chat leading up to the event making it clear he would be there for him, immediately keeping his word with the Team WhyNot standout.

In a difficult transition from Hall of Fame coach to new guy on the block with the weight of the winningest program in college basketball on his shoulders, Pope has made quite the first impression on Yessoufou.

“That was my dream school when I came to the United States. I definitely wanted an offer from Coach Cal, but he’s obviously gone,” he told KSR. “I’ve heard about Coach Pope, and he’s definitely got great energy. Just from FaceTiming him, you can tell he has amazing energy. I love being around coaches like that. Kentucky is a great program — for me, it’s top-10 in the country, definitely. With his history — you know, he used to play over there — so he brings a lot.”

What have their early conversations been like?

“You can tell he’s a person who is outgoing, and he’ll tell you things you need to work on. That’s one of the things I like about coaches now, not only telling you what you’re good at, but also what you need to improve on,” Yessoufou added. “His energy, man. His energy is just amazing. Just being around coaches like that, I feel like he’d push me hard to be the best I can be. I love him.”

Kentucky isn’t the only school making a push for him, obviously. Competition will always be fierce for a player ranked third on the EYBL circuit in both scoring at 23.0 points and rebounding at 7.5 boards per contest — he’s been among the best in high school basketball this spring and early summer.

“Alabama has been reaching out to me, Arizona and Texas, too,” he said. “Washington isn’t really talking to me like that, they’re just reaching out to my coach. I have his number, but we haven’t really been in contact. USC, UCLA, I talk to them. Coach (Eric Musselman) (at USC), he’s got great energy, too. I had an offer from Arkansas when he was over there. Talking to him on the phone, you can tell by the way that he talks that he has an amazing energy.”

Potentially Kentucky’s biggest competitor for Yessoufou? Arizona, where he already has a visit planned in the coming weeks.

“My mom is coming back from Africa, so I’m going to take a visit probably June 18th to Arizona. That’ll be my first visit,” he said. “Coach [Tommy] Lloyd, man, he’s a great person. The whole staff is great. If you’ve been on the campus, you can tell that Arizona is definitely a place that has the energy. They love you and welcome you, and that’s one of the things I love.”

As a player, he says his biggest growth has come as a shooter while his handle remains a work in progress. What separates his game from the rest of high school basketball, though, is clear.

“I can attack the basket, play hard on offense and defense — both sides,” he tells KSR. “Basically anything the coaches want me to do, I’ll do it. And I can shoot it a little bit, but my main thing is getting the other team in foul trouble.”

Kentucky has some clear early momentum under Mark Pope for one of the most productive players in 2025.

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2024-06-20