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Kentucky Enters the NCAA Tournament Motivated, “We Want to Prove Everybody Wrong”

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The Kentucky Wildcats are entering the NCAA Tournament motivated, wanting to prove everyone who doubted them and John Calipari wrong.
Photo by Chet White | UK Athletics

Win or go home. That is the reality Kentucky and 67 other teams face as they enter the NCAA Tournament this week.

They got a taste of that in the SEC Tournament, losing to Texas A&M in their first game. Sending them and thousands of the Kentucky faithful home with a bad taste in their mouth, one that Rob Dillingham believes will motivate the team for the Big Dance.

“I’m confident in our team,” Dillingham said after the loss to A&M. “It’s one game. Teams lose. It’s the best team to win that day. I feel like it only sets us up to be more hungry to be in the tournament.”

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Fairly or unfairly, a lot rides on this Kentucky team to lift the morale of the program with a Tournament run. After just one SEC Tournament win and one NCAA Tournament win over the last three seasons, the Big Blue Nation is not content, nor should they be.

That lack of postseason success has acted similar to a pressure cooker, creating a level of pressure that hasn’t been felt in years. The solution, win.

That is a task the players are accepting. “If you ask me, I just want to prove everybody wrong who doubted in us,” Zvonimir Ivisic said. “Everyone who said we couldn’t do it. Who doubted in Coach Cal. ‘They’re all freshmen’. All this, all that. I just want to prove them wrong.”

This team has been at their best when people are doubting them, counting them out, and so has Calipari. Kentucky has won four straight games when they are at least a 7.5-point underdog, including beating a 1-seed quality Tennessee team on the road in Knoxville in the regular season finale.

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Teammates Rob Dillingham and Anotnio Reeves talked more along the same lines after the Selection Show, going into the tournament with revenge on their minds after losing to Texas A&M in the SEC Tournament.

“We feel confident, honestly. Every time we’ve lost we have come back with a vain.” Dillingham said. “Just coming back with revenge,” Reeves added.

This was supposed to be the year. Kentucky brought in the No. 1 recruiting class, which featured multiple NBA Draft picks. Including DJ Wagner, the No. 1 recruit who was long tabbed a Wildcat, and homegrown talent Reed Sheppard. Pairing that young talent with talented veterans Tre Mitchell and Antonio Reeves, with the latter having an All-American season, and key contributors like Adou Thiero and Ugonna Onyenso.

The style of play, the personalities, their celebration of each other, have brought joy to a fanbase at a time when it has needed it. But without a deep run, one of the most likable Kentucky teams in recent memory could be looked back on with disappointment.

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Dillingham says it’s all about playing their own game. “When we play our game, there’s not a lot of teams that can play as good as us,” Dillingham said. “When we play our game, we rarely lose.”

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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