Did Pope make good hires for his first UK basketball staff? Their ex-players talked to us.

Somewhat lost amid the rapid roster rebuilding job that Mark Pope engineered over his first few weeks in Kentucky was the fact that he put together the bulk of his first Wildcats’ coaching staff in a speedy manner, too.

The actual players on the basketball court — there are 11 of them, so far — have predictably received the most attention over the past few weeks, but Pope obviously can’t lead them on his own. He needed assistant coaches, and he had nearly all of them in place before the majority of those new UK recruits actually committed to the program.

Pope also made hires for all three coaching positions that will be allowed to accompany him during off-campus recruiting activities, putting together that trio in time to hit the road in full force for last week’s major shoe company events — the only such evaluation period of the spring cycle.

With the players for Pope’s first UK team already arriving in Lexington, attention will soon turn to the practice court. What can the new Wildcats expect when they get in the Joe Craft Center this summer?

At the NBA Combine in Chicago this month, the Herald-Leader spoke to several draft hopefuls who were coached last season by new UK assistants Alvin Brooks III, Cody Fueger and Jason Hart, and all gave a glowing endorsement of each Pope hire — both on and off the court.

The first Kentucky staff will also include associate coach Mark Fox, who brings 18 years of NCAA head coaching experience, and one other full-time assistant. That fifth and final spot on Pope’s staff has not yet been filled, with a hire expected in the coming weeks.

Mark Pope was named the new head coach of the Kentucky men’s basketball team last month.
Mark Pope was named the new head coach of the Kentucky men’s basketball team last month.

What Alvin Brooks III brings to UK basketball

Alvin Brooks III, who will be the associate head coach at Kentucky after spending the past eight seasons with Baylor coach Scott Drew, is widely viewed as one of the top assistants (and recruiters) in college basketball and has been integral in the Bears’ on-court success — including a 2021 NCAA title — in recent years.

According to Jalen Bridges, one of three Baylor players projected to be NBA draft picks this year, Brooks informed the team of his decision to leave Waco for Lexington before the move became public, a gesture that, Bridges said, spoke to the 44-year-old’s overall character.

“It means a lot,” he said. “That just shows the type of person he is. A lot of people would just go about their business and, ‘I’ll see you when I see you.’ The fact that he has enough respect and love for us to get us in the know before we found out was amazing, honestly.”

Baylor big man Yves Missi — projected by ESPN as the No. 23 pick in next month’s draft — spoke to the Herald-Leader on his 20th birthday and said he had already received a message from Brooks.

“He’s a great human being,” Missi said. “Actually he texted me yesterday, telling me he was proud of me and asking me to keep going. And saying happy birthday to me, as well. So that was nice.”

Bridges, a 6-9 forward who spent two years at Baylor after transferring from West Virginia, said Brooks was the Bears’ primary defensive coach and credited him with aiding his progress on that end of the court, bolstering his draft stock in the process.

“He really pushed me to help develop the chip on my shoulder that I have on the defensive end,” he said. “He always pushed me to be the best version of myself. He’s honestly one of the greatest people I’ve ever been around. You guys are blessed to have him.”

Missi — a 7-footer from Cameroon who came to Baylor as a four-star recruit and spent just one season there — said Brooks also worked out the team’s big men.

“It was really nice having him as a coach, and we had a really good relationship,” he said. “And on the court — he’s someone that’s always giving us advice. During timeouts, telling you what to do, telling me stuff I should see on the court. I love him.”

Baylor’s top draft prospect is freshman guard Ja’Kobe Walter — projected as a lottery pick — and he had Brooks as a primary recruiter during his time as a high school prospect. In fact, Walter was the second of three consecutive top-10 players to commit to Baylor following a recruitment led by Brooks, who was also the Bears’ point man on Keyonte George (No. 9 in 2022, according to 247Sports) and VJ Edgecombe (No. 5 in the 2024 class).

“He was just always keeping it real,” Walter said. “And that’s what AB is. He’s never going to tell you something that’s not true. He’s always going to keep it real with you. As a recruiter, he really became like a friend through the process. I didn’t really see him as a coach. We could talk about anything. We didn’t really talk about basketball as much as people think we would. You see that he’s a really good person, and that’s what I found out through the recruiting process. A real cool guy. Down to Earth.”

Pope has been lauded for the energy he’s brought to his first weeks at Kentucky, and Walter said Brooks approaches the job in the same way.

“They’re definitely going to get the full package out of him. He cares a lot about basketball. Sometimes more than the players,” he said, pausing for a quick smile. “He does his job all the time — 24 hours of the day, he’s always thinking about basketball. He’s going to get you right on the details. He’s big on details, so he’s going to coach you, for sure.

“But off the court, he’s still going to be a great mentor. And a great person just to be around. He’s going to build your spirits at all times.”

Alvin Brooks III will be the associate head coach on Mark Pope’s first staff at Kentucky.
Alvin Brooks III will be the associate head coach on Mark Pope’s first staff at Kentucky.

The ‘brain’ behind the BYU offense

The first announced hire for Pope’s initial Kentucky coaching staff was the least surprising of the bunch. Cody Fueger has been an assistant under Pope for his entire head coaching career — four seasons at Utah Valley and the past five at BYU — and Fueger (pronounced FEE-gurr) was the director of basketball operations at BYU for two years while Pope was an assistant there, so the two have been together for more than a decade now.

The leading scorer on their final BYU team was Jaxson Robinson, who averaged 14.2 points off the bench for the Cougars, earning Big 12 Sixth Man of the Year honors in the program’s first year in the conference.

Robinson, who is currently going through the NBA draft process, was highly complimentary of Pope and credited the new UK coach with putting him in a position to possibly be in the league next season. When Fueger’s name was mentioned, Robinson’s expression lit up even more.

“Me and Fueger are super tight. That’s my guy,” he told the Herald-Leader. “I spent a lot of time with him in his office — just watching film, and he offered a lot of advice. He knew what I was trying to get to and the goals that I was trying to achieve, and so he was with me every step of the way trying to get there. I couldn’t thank him enough.

“He’s a guy that’s just going to work hard, help the players however he can. And you’ve just got to soak up all the information you can with that guy, because he knows a lot of stuff.”

BYU was known for its innovative offensive approach under Pope and Fueger, and the Cougars ended up No. 14 nationally in offensive efficiency last season, according to the KenPom ratings.

When it was mentioned that some basketball observers have described Fueger as an “offensive genius” Robinson interrupted a question related to that topic.

“He is,” he declared.

Fueger served as a student assistant under legendary Utah coach Rick Majerus — graduating from the school in 2006 before earning a master’s degree in 2007 — and has been an integral mind in helping Pope shape his offensive philosophy as a head coach.

The Cougars — picked to finish 13th in the 14-team Big 12 last season — ended up fifth in the standings and earned a 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament. BYU was second nationally in 3-point attempts per game, and Robinson said some of the plays his team ran in the NBA Combine scrimmages in Chicago were familiar because he had seen similar action with the Cougars.

The offensive stuff that we ran this year is amazing,” he said. “I think teams had a really difficult time guarding us, especially in conference play. They couldn’t really figure out how to match up with us, the way that we moved without the ball. And Cody Fueger is definitely the brain behind all that. That’s a good coach.”

Robinson, whose projections range from second round to undrafted, is already in the transfer portal and has until the Wednesday night deadline to remove his name from the NBA draft and retain his one remaining season of NCAA eligibility. If he does pull out of the draft, Kentucky and Kansas are viewed as the favorites to land his commitment.

From the NBA to Kentucky

For Jason Hart, coming to UK will mean a return to the college game.

The former Syracuse point guard was teammates with Pope as an NBA rookie with the Milwaukee Bucks and ultimately spent a decade in the league before pursuing a coaching career. He began in the high school and AAU ranks in California before a season at Pepperdine and then an eight-year stint at Southern Cal, where he was the associate head coach for a Trojans’ team that went to the 2021 Elite Eight, just the program’s second trip that far in the NCAA Tournament in 67 years.

After that, Hart was selected to be the head coach of the NBA’s G League Ignite program, which offered a professional development path for young prospects who didn’t want to pursue the college route. Hart spent the past three years in that role, coaching several NBA draft picks.

Ignite was disbanded by the NBA earlier this year — with NIL reforms at the college level cutting into its mission — but Hart’s final team featured four players that were included in ESPN’s new 2024 NBA mock draft, including three first-rounders.

And those players who talked to the Herald-Leader at the Combine spoke highly of the experience.

“Oh, it definitely helped me,” said Tyler Smith, projected by ESPN to go No. 24 in this year’s draft. “It helped me to find my game. It helped me find out that I’m more than a shooter. It just helped me develop my game, on and off the court.”

Smith, a star prospect from Texas before spending two years at Overtime Elite and last season with Ignite, said it was “special” to be part of the program’s final draft class and mentioned that learning to play more around the basket helped bring a new versatility to his game.

He said veteran pros like Norris Cole, John Jenkins and Jeremy Pargo aided his development, as did the coaching staff.

“Coach Hart — he was real hard on me. All year,” Smith said. “That helped me, though, at the end. It prepared me for this moment right here. He’s a great coach. Put fire up under you. Won’t let you slack off.”

The final G League Ignite team also featured Matas Buzelis (projected by ESPN to go with the No. 5 overall pick), Ron Holland (No. 11) and Spain native Izan Almansa (No. 52).

Buzelis and Holland were major UK recruiting targets before picking the pro route out of high school. Buzelis, who’s listed just after ex-Cats Reed Sheppard (No. 3) and Rob Dillingham (No. 4) in the latest mock draft, mentioned the new Wildcats’ assistant coach when asked by an NBA reporter about his development with Ignite.

“They definitely prepared us throughout the year,” he said. “Coach Hart did an amazing job.”

Asked to elaborate on his time with Hart, the 19-year-old offered up additional praise.

“He’s an amazing coach,” Buzelis said. “One of the best head coaches I’ve ever had. He’s super smart. IQ is off the charts. He’s just a super energy guy, and he also gets involved really close with the players.”

The results on the court weren’t there in Ignite’s final season — the team finished 2-32, the worst mark in the G League by far — but the nature of the team’s setup, with a bunch of teenagers playing against older, more physical players fighting for a chance at the NBA, was geared more toward development, and past stars such as Scoot Henderson have also talked up their time with the program.

Though Pope is trying to build a new culture around UK basketball that should lead to more roster continuity than was often there during John Calipari’s tenure as head coach, the Wildcats will still be pursuing potential one-and-done players, and getting to the NBA, obviously, will remain the ultimate long-term goal for anyone who plays at Kentucky.

With Hart, the program has someone with a record of developing young pros and a coach who has a history of winning results at the college level. Smith said he’s also going to hold Kentucky’s players accountable.

“Yeah, I’m glad I got it right before I got to the NBA. Coach would always tell us, ‘It’s not gonna be this sweet at the next level, so you just have to earn everything.’”

Jason Hart was the head coach of the G League Ignite program for the past three seasons and was also one of Mark Pope’s teammates in the NBA.
Jason Hart was the head coach of the G League Ignite program for the past three seasons and was also one of Mark Pope’s teammates in the NBA.

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