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Mitch Barnhart says Mark Pope is off to 'terrific, terrific start' at Kentucky, but 'now we need to go build on that'

Jack PIlgrimby:Jack Pilgrim05/29/24

It’s hard to ask for a better start than what Mark Pope has accomplished in his first seven weeks on the job. He hired a top-tier coaching staff and brought in 11 talented roster pieces, a strong combination of shooting, scoring, defense, rebounding, experience and depth — plus more to come.

Most importantly, though, he’s been a shot in the arm to a fanbase that desperately needed one after a half-decade of underwhelming postseason results. The messaging had gone stale and Mitch Barnhart worked quickly to find someone capable of reinvigorating the most passionate fans in college basketball.

Kentucky‘s AD sat down with Paul Finebaum at the SEC Spring Meetings in Destin to talk about Pope’s first impression and where things stand 47 days in.

“Our fans are anxious to win No. 9. That’s important to them. No one understood that assignment better than Mark,” Barnhart told Finebaum at Hilton Sandestin Beach. “He was the right fit for us at the right time. It was a variety of things that happened along the way that were really, really special and Mark touched the right buttons in understanding exactly what Kentucky was all about.”

One thing he appreciates about Pope? His ability to quickly establish a culture and make this program his own following John Calipari’s departure. He brings his own passion and excitement that is contagious, a new twist on what has worked for other top coaches on campus — including what Coach Cal did when he first arrived in Lexington.

“I don’t want to make him sound like Superman here because he still has things he has to do but I’ll tell you that he’s off to a terrific, terrific start,” Barnhart said. “We’ve got some really good coaches that have done some really good things for Kentucky. They’ve each got their own personality. Mark Stoops is a guy who has generated toughness for our (football) program, Mark (Pope) has got an ability to relate to the big picture of Kentucky basketball. And I just watched an interview someone did with Nick Mingione — Nick has created his own style for Kentucky baseball that has allowed us to win a share of the conference championship and be a national seed and host.”

He’s nailed that part of the job. Now, though, it’s about what’s next and why he was brought in to begin with: To win basketball games.

“At Kentucky, we’ve got to be unique a little bit. We’re not sometimes gonna be able to out-talent everybody. In basketball, we might be able to do that, but in some of the sports we’ve got to figure out our own personality,” Barnhart added. “Mark does a really good job of bringing the talent with the personality and now we’ve got to go produce something at a Kentucky schedule next fall and win some games.”

Nothing we can do about that part until the ball is tipped later this year, a long five months until Big Blue Madness still to go.

Until then? Barnhart is pretty pleased with the results.

“He’s a guy that has an ability to bring people in and make them believe in themselves at a high level. You walk into his office and you feel like you’ve been talking to him for an awfully long time,” he said. “He and his wife Lee Anne, their four girls, we’re super excited to have ’em in our program. … We’ve got a long ways to go, but I’m thankful for the start we were given. Now we need to go build on that.”

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