Does Mark Pope still have time to build a contender for next season? ‘He’s turning heads.’

The college basketball world is talking about Mark Pope.

Kentucky’s new basketball coach won the press conference before he even opened his mouth Sunday in Rupp Arena, and a fan base that was clearly yearning for something new is getting a sea change right out of the gate. Pope is in the process of putting his coaching staff together. He’s making national TV appearances. Lexington is in a tizzy over the return of one of its own.

So what’s this team missing? Oh yeah, some actual players.

As of Thursday morning, Kentucky’s official roster for the 2024-25 season features exactly one guy: combo guard Collin Chandler, a former top-40 recruit who has spent the past two years on a mission trip and flipped his commitment from BYU to UK this week.

No one is doubting that Pope will fill that roster up over the next few weeks. He’s going to get players. But will he get enough difference-makers to turn Kentucky into an actual contender right off the bat? Can his Wildcats actually compete on a national level in year one?

Sure sounds like that’ll be the expectation.

“Oh, 100%,” 247Sports national recruiting analyst Travis Branham told the Herald-Leader on Wednesday. “There are 1,700 players in the transfer portal. Only 200 have committed. There are tons of players still available. Tons of them. And he’s already turning heads around the entire industry. I can’t tell you how many coaches reached out to me over the last three days. And they would just bring up, ‘How about Mark Pope’s press conference?’ And just how impressed they were with the Kentucky fan base and also his presence on that stage that day.

“So, he’s turning heads. And it’s not just college coaches who are taking notice. It’s AAU coaches, agents, decision-makers, players. They’re getting blown up by players that they couldn’t get on the phone at BYU.”

“They” is a small group for the time being. Pope is bringing Cody Fueger with him from BYU, and UK’s new head coach and his longtime assistant have been working behind the scenes to identify the players Kentucky will be seriously pursuing over the next few weeks.

Fueger has been an assistant under Pope for all nine of his seasons as a college head coach. His hiring has not yet been officially announced, but the 40-year-old who’s been described as the “architect” of Pope’s exciting offense should be formally introduced soon.

It’s likely that other staff additions will be made official in the next few days, too.

In the meantime, Pope is laying the foundation for what could be a surprisingly promising season. And what comes next could allay the fears of fans who might have thought year one of the Pope era was destined to be a rebuilding job with little hope for immediate success.

“Let’s not kid ourselves, he doesn’t have the personal brand that John Calipari has, when it comes to the recruiting trail,” Branham said. “But, in today’s day and age, I would say you don’t necessarily need that as much. If you can show that you can coach, your guys can get better, and you have the NIL to back you — you can do anything on the recruiting trail in this era. Especially when you’re at a school like Kentucky. That’s going to recruit itself. …

“Like he’s said time and time again, he’s not going to make this a one-stop place. Or a runway to go to the NBA. But I do believe — with just how good of a coach he is — it’s going to attract players to come. And he’s going to get them better. And the results will then start speaking for themselves.”

Mark Pope was introduced to Kentucky basketball fans during a ceremony Sunday in Rupp Arena.
Mark Pope was introduced to Kentucky basketball fans during a ceremony Sunday in Rupp Arena.

Mark Pope’s recruiting options

As Branham pointed out, there are well over 1,000 uncommitted players in the transfer portal, and that number is growing by the day. The pool of possibilities is also filled with game-changing talent.

Take Tuesday, for example. In a matter of hours, the following players jumped into the portal: Duke guard Jeremy Roach, Saint Mary’s guard Aidan Mahaney and Dayton sharpshooter Koby Brea. That’s some game-changing talent. And that’s just one day.

Not all of those players will be major Kentucky targets — Mahaney, for instance, is thought to be a heavy Michigan lean — but it’s indicative of the possibilities that remain for Pope, even as he’s still in the process of putting his staff together.

And don’t just go looking at the top of the transfer rankings lists to see who Pope might be pursuing the hardest. Kentucky’s new coach has his own system — on and off the court — and he’ll be looking for the right fits, in both regards. With that high-octane offense and the brand of Kentucky basketball as part of the sales pitch, the payoff has the potential to be profound.

“He is going to recruit differently than John Calipari,” Branham said. “He’s not going to accumulate talent. He’s going to accumulate players that fit the way he wants to play. And that’s going to look different than it did at BYU, because he can get a completely different caliber of player than he did at BYU.

“So I would imagine that (the style of play) is going to look very similar to BYU, but with some minor tweaks and a lot more talent out on the court.”

Even with Calipari’s relatively late departure for Arkansas, the early offseason calendar shouldn’t be that much of a hindrance for Pope. He doesn’t have all the time in the world, obviously, but he does have time.

Securing Chandler was a big first step. Kentucky Mr. Basketball Travis Perry is all but certain to stick with his UK commitment, and he’s likely to make that official soon.

There’s the possibility that some BYU players might follow Pope to Lexington, with NBA draft prospect Jaxson Robinson and highly skilled big man Aly Khalifa mentioned among the most likely options. Khalifa, however, committed to Louisville on Thursday afternoon. Robinson — the Cougars’ leading scorer this past season — is projected as a possible second-round pick, but there’s a chance he returns to college, and if he does Kentucky would be the favorite.

UK will host Drexel big man Amari Williams — the three-time Coastal Athletic Association defensive player of the year — for an official visit that starts this weekend. Branham said he’d be a good fit for Pope’s style and a player that should be able to step into the SEC and make a difference right away.

Pope has also made contact with uncommitted McDonald’s All-American wing Liam McNeeley, a 6-foot-7 recruit in the 2024 class ranked No. 16 nationally by 247Sports.

Other big names will pop up. For instance, UK was immediately linked to both Roach and Brea, just about as soon as they hit the portal. Roach started 108 games at Duke. Brea made 100 3-pointers this past season and hit at a 49.8% clip from deep. Both will be coveted pickups.

Will either be major Kentucky targets? It’s too early to know, for sure. The lists of schools supposedly in contact with portal players are flying at a ridiculous rate on social media. Proceed with caution when trying to reach conclusions about who’s really pursuing who, especially in the current case of Kentucky, which is still piecing together its target list and making introductory calls amid feeling-out processes that might not go anywhere.

Branham’s advice for following the portal madness: If UK sets up a campus visit with a player, that’s a good indication that Pope and his staff are serious about him. They’re not exactly running out of time at the moment, but they won’t be wasting any of it either.

Drexel’s Amari Williams (22) has been named the Coastal Athletic Association defensive player of the year in each of the past three seasons.
Drexel’s Amari Williams (22) has been named the Coastal Athletic Association defensive player of the year in each of the past three seasons.

Kentucky’s recruiting deadlines

College players still have until May 1 to put their names in the portal (and they can commit to a new school at any time after that date). The deadline to enter the NBA draft is April 27, and the deadline to pull out and retain NCAA eligibility is May 29.

In the past, that drawn-out timeline has worked against Kentucky and Calipari, who was left with his hands tied, sometimes unable to go after real game-changers in the portal because one of his current players might come back.

Last year, Oscar Tshiebwe, Chris Livingston and Antonio Reeves all took their NBA decisions down to the final day. In the meantime, talented transfers at their positions committed elsewhere or didn’t seriously consider Kentucky at all for fear of lost opportunities if those players did return. (And opposing schools will be quick to point out such scenarios in the recruiting process.)

This offseason, Pope shouldn’t have that concern.

The only current Kentucky player who could have gone through the NBA process and ultimately returned was Reed Sheppard, and he announced Thursday afternoon that he will enter the draft and forgo his final three years of college eligibility.

And beating back the negative recruiting narratives related to one player returning would have been a lot easier than doing it for three players. That’s what UK dealt with last offseason, when only Reeves returned and the Cats ultimately had no physical presence down low, partly because they didn’t or couldn’t move on replacements for Tshiebwe and Livingston until they knew what each player’s final answer would be.

If Sheppard knew for sure he was going to stay in the draft, he did Kentucky’s new coaching staff a favor by announcing it when he did.

Another potential positive for Pope? If May 29 comes around and he does have a glaring hole or two on his roster, such a need could be filled by a player who backs out of the NBA draft at the last moment and has already put his name in the portal. There were such cases last year.

The college basketball offseason won’t stop for a while. And, for now, the sport is talking about Pope and the possibilities in Lexington. Expect the commitments to come soon enough.

“Like I said, he’s turning heads,” Branham said. “He’s making an impression very, very quickly. And so I, personally, would anticipate that he puts a Top 25-caliber roster together very, very quickly.”

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