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A Hard Decision Has to Be Made

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Kentucky hasn't meet expectations the last four seasons under John Calipari. Is it time for him to go?

“The team had won a total of just two NCAA tournament games in the previous four seasons, and over the last two, it had lost twenty-seven games. That’s not supposed to happen in Lexington. There was nowhere to go but up.”

That is a direct quote from John Calipari’s book, Player’s First, which he published in April 2014, talking about the state of the Kentucky basketball program that he inherited in 2009, following Tubby Smith and Billy Gillespie. Nearly a decade later, those numbers are eerily similar.

Over the last four seasons, Kentucky has just one NCAA Tournament win, including two first-round losses to double-digit seeds. Over the last two, the Wildcats have lost 22 games. As Calipari said, that’s not supposed to happen at Kentucky.

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Through that span, people have blamed the lack of success on things like play style, recruiting strategies, and/or being slow to NIL amongst other things. But this was supposed to be the team.

A team “built for March,” Calipari said. A team that featured two of the best upperclassmen in the country. The no. 1 freshman class, which included three top 10 prospects and multiple projected NBA Draft picks. The stereotypical Calipari team, that featured elite freshmen and athleticism, playing in a revamped offense

While it created one of the most likable and exciting teams in recent Kentucky basketball history, it wasn’t enough for a single postseason win. The rosters have changed, the assistants have changed, but there has been one constant, John Calipari.

This is coming from a fan-turned-media member, soon to be 26 years old, who wrote voluntary school reports on Kentucky basketball. Whose first Kentucky basketball memories were towards the end of Tubby Smith’s career. Who cried at how bad Kentucky was during Billy Gillespie’s two seasons. Whose favorite birthday present on April, 1st 2009 was John Calipari being hired, as I learned on a school computer on ESPN. Whose Cal has treated nicely in every interaction and setting.

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Now, I have watched a team with multiple NBA players finish with the worst record in modern Kentucky basketball history. A team with the National Player of the Year, get beat by a 15-seed. Now a team with two top 10 picks and All-American lose to a 14 seed, almost single-handedly to a player that was playing Division III just two seasons ago.

“When we get it right, you notice we’re No. 1 in the country. We’re No. 1 seeds and we’re playing in Final Fours,” Calipari said in his Kentucky introductory press conference. Things don’t just feel “right” anymore.

Kentucky hasn’t been a 1-seed nor participated in a Final Four since 2015, nor been in reach of one since 2019. With each move Calipari makes, the Big Blue Nation becomes more and more divided.

John Calipari is a great man. He has done a lot, not just for Kentucky basketball, bringing four Final Fours and a national title, but also for this state and its people, raising millions and helping thousands of families. That said, Kentucky basketball is not meeting expectations, even by his own standards.

“I cannot tell you how hard the decision was because of what I left behind,” Calipari said of his decision to leave Memphis for Kentucky in 2009.

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Kentucky basketball is bigger than any coach. Walking off the court in Pittsburgh, following Calipari and the team to the locker room after the loss to Oakland, flooded with memories of the last 15 seasons, it feels like it’s time to make a hard decision.

Men's Basketball

Rick Pitino Endorses Mark Pope, “He Will Lead The Kentucky Wildcats To Another Championship”

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Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports/ Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

The captain of Rick Pitino’s 1996 “Untouchables”, Mark Pope, is “coming home” to lead the Kentucky Wildcats as the program’s next head coach, officially announced on Friday. While there has been some criticism of the hire, Pitino says he “couldn’t be any prouder to see Mark Pope lead the Kentucky Wildcats.”

While Pope has yet to win an NCAA Tournament game in two appearances, Pitino points out that several top coaches had their trials early in their careers. It took Jay Wright 11 seasons to win his first NCAA Tournament, and Billy Donovan was hired at Florida without an NCAA Tournament appearance. However, he heralds Pope as one of the “premier young coaches” in college basketball.

“Offensively, no one does it better,” Pitino said. “The way his teams move. The way his teams shoot the three. The ball movement. It’s outstanding.”

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It’s just the X’s and O’s though, Pitino “guarantees” that Pope loves and understands the program as well as anyone. “I can guarantee to you one thing, that nobody epitomizes the name on the front of the jersey more than Mark Pope.”

“Mark Pope will go on to greatness. You can put it down,” Pitino said. “He will do you proud. “He will lead the Kentucky Wildcats to another championship”

If his endorsement isn’t enough, Rick Pitino says he will “write the check himself” for NIL to help Pope be successful.

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Men's Basketball

Mark Pope Releases Statement As He Is Announced As Kentucky Basketball Coach

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Rob Gray-USA TODAY Sports

Per UK Athletics

When his alma mater came calling, Mark Pope knew there was no place like home.

Pope, a captain of the University of Kentucky’s 1996 National Championship team, has returned to Lexington as the 23rd head coach of Kentucky’s storied men’s basketball program, announced Friday.

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“The University of Kentucky is the pinnacle of coaching in college basketball,” Pope said. “It’s the definition of a blueblood program where hanging a banner is the expectation every year. Equally as important, UK changed my life forever as a human being. The love and passion I have for this program, this University and the people of the Commonwealth goes to the depth of my soul.”

“I’m thankful to Dr. (Eli) Capilouto and Mitch Barnhart for this opportunity. I’m proud to be your next head coach and I can’t wait to do this together!”

Pope is a nine-year head coaching veteran with stops at BYU and Utah Valley, amassing a 187-108 career record. His squads won 20 or more games in six of the last seven seasons and he has made six postseason appearances.

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Men's Basketball

REPORT: Mark Pope Set Sign Five-Year Deal to Become Next Kentucky Basketball Coach

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Rob Gray-USA TODAY Sports

Kentucky has found their guy. Former Wildcat and NCAA Champion, Mark Pope, is now expected to be named the next Kentucky basketball coach on a five-year contract worth $5.5 million annually, first reported by CBS Sports. For perspective, based on last season’s salaries, that is more than Dan Hurley (UConn), Scott Drew (Baylor), and Nate Oats (Alabama).

Pope comes to Kentucky with nine seasons of head coaching experience, after serving as an assistant for six seasons, from 2009-2015. In 2015, he was hired by Utah Valley where he coached for four seasons. In 2019, Pope was hired at BYU where he has taken them to two NCAA Tournaments, but has been upset by a double-digit seed in both appearances.

Pope has proven himself as a good X-and-O coach in his nine-year career, running one of the most innovative offenses in the country, but recruiting will be a real test as he has never signed a four-star recruit. Who he hires on to his staff and collecting NIL support will be critical.

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The move has been met with much fan criticism, as fans have been quick to point out that Pope has never won a conference title or an NCAA Tournament game. However, Mitch Barnhart is confident in the move, with some reporting that he is “excited” with the hire.

Just three days into the coaching search, this is an interesting hire with several big names like Billy Donovan and Bruce Pearl potentially available. Barnhart made the decision not to wait for Donovan, who is currently coaching the Chicago Bulls, and Pearl was not considered due to his “baggage”.

A new era of Kentucky basketball has begun.

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