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Men's Basketball

Kentucky Leave/Stay Predictions Following Player Meetings

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John Calipari says this Kentucky team is playing with "supreme confidence" and he has never had this many players "live in the gym".
IMAGN-USA Today Network

The 2023-24 Kentucky basketball season is over, meaning it is time to prepare for the 2024-25 season. The first step in that is the decision of the current players to leave/return, which they will announce over the coming days and weeks.

John Calipari met with each player last week to discuss their future and their options. Let’s look at where things stand with each of them.

Gone/Likely Gone

Graduates

Kentucky will have two key contributors graduating as fifth-year seniors this season, Antonio Reeves and Tre Mitchell. Unfortunately, their college careers are over.

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Rob Dillingham

Rob Dillingham came to Kentucky as their 4th highest-ranked recruit last season. Despite some offseason hopes that he could be a two-year player, he has worked and played his into a projected Top 5 pick, and could be Kentucky’s first since De’Aaron Fox in 2017.

Prediction: NBA Draft
Confidence Level: High, 100%

Ugonna Onyenso

Ugonna Onyenso entered the transfer portal last season, not really on his own accord. This time it is a little different. He wasn’t sure how he would fit in the lineup coming back from injury. When he did, he had his moments, he was inconsistent.

That said, Oneysno had the second-highest block percentage in the country this season (14.8%). Many schools will pursue a 7-foot, elite shot blocker.

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Prediction: Transfer
Confidence Level: High, 90%

Aaron Bradshaw

For a time, Aaron Bradshaw was the No. 1 recruit in the 2023 class. Unfortunately, in his freshman season at Kentucky, there were only flashes of that and by the end was only getting spot minutes.

Bradshaw’s name is no longer featured on NBA Draft Boards and he and those around him are interested in a fresh start. That said, he was one of the emotional players in the locker room after the loss to Oakland.

Prediction: Transfer
Confidence Level: Medium-High, 75%

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Reed Sheppard

A product of London, Kentucky, Reed Sheppard was a McDonald’s All-American and was believed to be a 2-3 year player. Then he went on to have one of the most efficient seasons in program history and won National Freshman of the Year, even surprising himself to an extent.

Sheppard is in a unique situation, being an in-state talent and loving this program, but also being a projected Top 10 pick. The NIL money (estimated $3-$ million) will be there if he returns. However, Sheppard’s draft stock will never be higher and he will be risking A LOT with a return.

Prediction: NBA Draft
Confidence Level: Medium-High, 70%

Difficult Decisions

Adou Thiero

Since the end of the season, John Calipari has expressed a desire to get older and more physical. Both characteristics fit Adou Thiero. However, last week Thiero announced that he will be going through the draft process and also entering the transfer portal, keeping all his options open, including a return to Kentucky.

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Thiero has some second-round draft grades, but has first-round potential with another year. That said, the biggest threat is the portal. The staff will attempt to recruit Thiero back, but there are certainly concerns. If Thiero’s goal is the NBA, Kentucky is the best place for him, but NIL and role have to be right.

Prediction: Stay
Confidence Level: Low, 40%

DJ Wagner

If you look at the incoming class, it is big and wing-heavy. Kentucky needs to add to its backcourt and a sophomore DJ Wagner is one the best options available.

A former No. 1 recruit, Wagner found his stride in the middle of the season, but after a serious ankle injury that kept him out multiple games, he struggled to regain his rhythm through much of February and March. Calipari noted that he believes that he has 1-2 guards that he hopes to return and Wagner is certainly one of them.

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Wagner has the connections and upside to be drafted, but another year would serve he and his draft stock well.

Prediction: Stay
Confidence Level: Low, 50%

Justin Edwards

Justin Edwards was the Wildcat with the highest draft projection going into the season. During Kentucky’s GLOBL Jam trip in July, he looked the part, averaging 14.5 PPG and 6.5 RPG. However, the regular season was filled with struggles until February, where he became one of Kentucky’s biggest contributors.

That stretch of play put Edwards back in the first-round conversation. He will enter the draft process, hoping to get a first-round draft grade. If he does, which is most likely, he will remain in the draft, but if he doesn’t a return is on the table.

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Prediction: NBA Draft
Confidence Level: Medium-High, 70%

Zvonimir Ivisic

After a six-month-long battle to get him admitted into Kentucky and eligible to play, Zvonimir Ivisic may have had the best debut in Kentucky basketball history. Being forced to adapt during SEC play, Ivisic certainly took steps forward and started to emerge as Kentucky’s top big towards the end of the season.

Ivisic came to Kentucky intending to play one season before going to the NBA. At 7-2, with great perimeter skills, a team could take him with a second-round pick. However, Ivisic has enjoyed his time in Lexington, and with a full offseason to build on his frame and become accustomed, he could play his way into a lottery pick.

That said, Ivisic has entered the draft process twice already, meaning he cannot test the waters. He has to decide whether to enter or return. Given the terms of Ivisic coming to Kentucky, I lean toward him going to the draft.

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Prediction: NBA Draft
Confidence Level: Medium, 60%

Jordan Burks

The former leading scorer at Overtime Elite, Jordan Burks was a great depth piece to add to the roster last summer, with the plan to develop him over 2-3 seasons. While he didn’t receive consistent playing time this season, he had his moments and showed that he can be a valuable player going forward.

Since the season ended on March 21st, Burks has made several posts of his workouts in the practice facility and looks to be preparing for a sophomore season. Given the variables of the incoming class and potential returnees, he could be one to watch for the transfer portal.

Prediction: Stay
Confidence Level: Medium, 50%

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Joey Hart

Similar to Burks, Joey Hart is a player who committed to Kentucky, knowing he would be a multi-year guy. What I can say here is, that Calipari wants him to return, and Hart and his family want to be at Kentucky, but it is all dependent on what the roster looks like.

Prediction: Stay
Confidence Level: Medium, 60%

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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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