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Men's Basketball

The Morning After: Four Things to Know after Kentucky vs. Kentucky State

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UK Athletics

On a somber Thursday night, the fans and team honored the father of Damion Collins, Ben Collins, as Kentucky played their final “tune-up” game before the start of the regular season.

This time against the Kentucky State Thorobreds, and the Wildcats put on an honorable performance in a 111-53 victory.

Despite playing with just eight scholarship players, with three key players out – Damion Collins (grieving loss of father), Oscar Tshiebwe (injury), Sahvir Wheeler (injury) – the Kentucky Wildcats looked impressive.

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After a lackluster performance on Sunday, Kentucky put on an offensive clinic, while still holding the Thorobreds to under 28 percent shooting from the field and from three.

Let’s get into the specifics.

First-game jitters are gone

Scoring just 56 points in their exhibition against Missouri Western State, the Wildcats looked off. On Thursday, Kentucky scored nearly doubled the number of points (111), scoring efficiently and at ease.

A big reason for that is that players who played poorly in the previous exhibition, stepped up in a big way, most notably Chris Livingston and Antonio Reeves.

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After combining for just a total of seven points against Missouri Western State, the duo balled out and were two of the team’s three leading scorers, scoring 23 and 14 respectively. They also scored efficiently, Livingston only missed one of his seven shots, while Reeves shot 50 percent from the field and three.

It wasn’t just Livingston and Reeves playing well, but six different players scored in double figures and the team only accounted for 10 turnovers.

Shown by the even scoring and limited amount of turnovers, it seems fair to say that the players got their first-game jitters out.

Three-point shooting

Last season, the responsibility for the three-point shooting primarily fell on the shoulders of Kellan Grady and Davion Mintz, and the consistency was not always there.

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This season, the hope is that responsibility is more spread out as Kentucky has two elite shooters – CJ Fredrick and Antonio Reeves – and several capable shooters – Chris Livingston, Adou Thiero, and Cason Wallace.

On Thursday night, the best of Kentucky’s shooting was on display as they made 12 of their 26 three-point attempts, with five different players making a three. Be reminded, this is without Oscar Tshiebwe to help spread the floor or Sahvir Wheeler to penetrate and kick out.

To no surprise, Fredrick and Reeves led the way, hitting three and five three-point shots respectively. More interestingly, Wallace shot eight threes, and while he only made two of them, it showed that he is not afraid to shoot it and can provide shooting at the point guard position when needed.

Ugonna play

Ugonna Onyenso is going to play.

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After recording 5 blocks in 15 minutes on Sunday night, Onyenso followed that performance with 11 rebounds and four blocks in 18 minutes on Thursday night. For reference, that is a 23.3 percent block percentage. This is higher than the highest block recorded percentage (Walker Kessler, 19.05%) since it started being collected in 2009.

Albeit these past two exhibition games have been against inferior and smaller competition, Onyenso has made an impact in limited playing time.

If Onyenso can carry this level of play into the regular season and continue to do things that set him apart – blocking and rebounding -, expect him to compete with Lance Ware and Damion Collins for playing time.

Injuries

Oscar Tshiebwe is recovering from minor knee surgery and Sahvir Wheeler suffered a minor knee injury in Kentucky’s last exhibition. Both sat out on Thursday tonight, originally with the expectation that they would be ready to go.

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While neither is expected to be long-term issues, they could keep them out longer than originally thought.

Following Kentucky’s exhibition win on Thursday night, John Calipari said he would be “stunned” if Tshiebwe played on Monday, and would be “somewhat surprised” if he played Friday.

While Wheeler’s timeline is TBD, it seems that Tshiebwe will be out at least the first week of the regular season, but will hopefully be ready to go against Michigan State in the Champion’s Classic on Nov. 15th.

In encouraging news, Thsiebwe was seen jumping around in warmups on Thursday night while Wheeler also looked healthy, not wearing any brace nor showing any sign of pain.

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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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