What’s Mark Pope looking for as he builds his first Kentucky roster? He tells us the plan.

Still less than two weeks removed from a Rupp Arena coronation that caught the attention of the entire college basketball world, Mark Pope has been a busy man.

Meeting with recruits and their families. Showing potential transfers around Keeneland. Spreading the gospel of Kentucky basketball on national TV shows. Driving to and from Blue Grass Airport. Making phone calls.

Oh, so many phone calls.

That’s been a typical day in the life of UK’s new coach since he arrived in town two weekends ago. When Pope stepped onto the podium in Rupp Arena on April 14 — two days after he was officially announced as the next leader of the Wildcats — a frenzied crowd hung on every word.

Pope hit all the right notes, and he closed his remarks that day by saying that he’d be hitting the phones that night. After all, when he stepped off the stage that Sunday afternoon, he had exactly zero players fully committed to his first Kentucky roster.

It was time to get to work.

Pope took some time out of his hectic schedule Tuesday to speak with the Herald-Leader about his efforts to put together a formidable team for the 2024-25 season and lay the foundation for the type of program he wants to lead into the next era of UK basketball.

He said in those closing comments at the ceremony in Rupp that potential recruits had been reacting differently to his initial calls as Kentucky’s coach — after spending the past nine seasons as head coach at Utah Valley and then BYU — and he was looking forward to the conversations in the coming days and weeks as he pieced together his first roster.

That wonder hasn’t worn off.

“It’s actually fun,” Pope said of the seemingly endless series of calls. “Listen, every time I get to say, ‘Hey, this is Coach Pope from the University of Kentucky’ — it’s thrilling for me. And, I think, for a lot of the kids that we talk to, it’s thrilling for them also. You think of Kentucky — especially in the recruiting game — you think of it as the pinnacle of basketball, right?”

Pope couldn’t give an exact number — hesitating to even throw out a ballpark figure — on how many players he had personally spoken to over the past week and a half.

“We’re hitting the phones hard,” he said with a chuckle.

Pope said there have been “a ton” of first calls, and — while he didn’t come out and explicitly say it — the new UK coach made clear that just because a transfer or high school recruit has been contacted doesn’t mean he’s necessarily a serious target for the Wildcats.

“It’s the second and third and fourth calls that actually make a difference,” he said.

And that’s the situation Pope and his still-growing coaching staff find themselves in as they wade through the transfer portal and the leftovers of the 2024 high school class, building a roster from scratch from the remnants of what John Calipari left behind on his way to Arkansas.

Mark Pope was introduced as the new men’s basketball coach at the University of Kentucky during a ceremony in Rupp Arena on April 14.
Mark Pope was introduced as the new men’s basketball coach at the University of Kentucky during a ceremony in Rupp Arena on April 14.

Mark Pope’s first recruits

By Monday night, Pope’s 2024-25 roster had grown from nothing to three players in less than a week.

Former BYU commitment Collin Chandler — a top 40 national recruit — officially became the first player of the Pope era when he flipped his pledge to the Cats last Tuesday.

On Sunday, former Drexel big man Amari Williams — the three-time Coastal Athletic Association defensive player of the year — became the first transfer of Pope’s tenure. The next day, Kentucky Mr. Basketball Travis Perry, who signed with Calipari back in November, said he was all in on his UK commitment after meeting with Pope.

BYU guard Richie Saunders could also be announcing soon that he plans to move to Lexington after playing the last two seasons under Pope in Provo.

That’s a start, but those players would fill fewer than a third of UK’s available scholarships, with all 10 underclassmen from Calipari’s final Kentucky team now either in the NBA draft pool or the transfer portal.

The process of finding players will continue with Pope and his assistant coaches — for now, it’s only Cody Fueger and Jason Hart — working the phones and getting to know potential Wildcats on a more personal level. UK hosted Saunders for his official visit Monday, and more official visitors will be coming to Lexington as this week continues.

If a player makes it to town, it’s a pretty good bet he’s a coveted target, with Pope doing his due diligence ahead of time to identify who best fits the direction he wants to take this program.

The 51-year-old coach described himself as “a FaceTime guy” when initially connecting with recruits. He wants to be able to see their faces and get a better sense of their reactions and emotions when discussing the possibility of playing for Kentucky, much preferring that visual medium to traditional phone calls. “When I just have to talk over a regular phone call, I feel like I’m not even communicating,” he said. “I feel like we don’t even know each other.”

What exactly is he looking for during these conversations, before bringing a player to campus?

“It’s all the things,” Pope says, acknowledging that’s a broad answer but asking to bear with him as he works his way toward the specifics. “I think sometimes we try to reduce the recipe down to one or two things. And there’s not very many things you can make with only one or two ingredients. You can make ice with water. But we’re trying to make a much more complicated stew than that.

“So it really is a balance of all the things that we’re looking for, and that’s why you get into second and third and fourth and fifth FaceTimes and Zooms and face-to-face encounters.”

Obviously, Pope is looking for guys that fit the culture he wants to foster at Kentucky, the “name on the front of the jersey” ideals that he spoke of in that first press conference at Rupp Arena and will continue to talk about throughout his tenure. A willingness to sacrifice for the team and acknowledge that no one player is bigger than the whole is of great importance when vetting possible additions to UK’s program.

Pope spoke of building this first roster, specifically, as like “trying to fit together a puzzle” — a process with needs and wants that will change as more and more players sign on, altering the dynamic of what he and his staff are looking for in future targets.

“Making a team is just a brilliant process,” he said. “And when I say ‘brilliant’ what I mean is it’s just exciting. It’s incredibly artistic. So when you ask kind of what factors we’re looking for — we’re looking for all of them. Clearly, we’re looking for length and size and speed. We’re looking for talent. We’re looking for skill level. Skill level, in terms of — shooting is always going to be at a premium for us here, the way we play — it’s always going to be really important.

“But we’re looking for guys that have processing speed.”

And with those last two words, Pope excitedly jumped into what he later called “a five-minute lecture” on a key attribute that will make a Kentucky Wildcat for as long as he’s on the job.

The right instincts for Kentucky

Pope’s first recruit as UK’s new coach, Collin Chandler, actually committed to him two and a half years ago as a high school senior, before delaying his enrollment at BYU to take a two-year mission trip overseas as a representative of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a journey that left little time for basketball during that time away.

When discussing the importance of “processing speed” to the type of style he likes to play, Pope brought up Chandler and his “unbelievable ability” to see and react to the game in real time.

To illustrate his point, Kentucky’s new basketball coach used a football analogy.

“It’s kind of like a great wide receiver, on a simple level,” he said. “A great wide receiver is actually able to be going full speed. They’re able to calculate — somehow, internally — the velocity and distance of the ball, where it’s going. And then to calculate their speed of when to arrive there just on time. And then also be able to calculate how to create space with their defender, where they actually can put a body into them and then release at exactly the right time to receive the ball.

“The greatest natural receivers can put together all those things in the same format. And in basketball, it can even be more complicated, right? And so those guys that just have this innate ability to process things — they make a huge difference for how we play.”

What Pope is talking about is a merging of the traditional phrase “basketball IQ” with the instincts and ability to perform in the moment. Not only knowing the “right” play but possessing the timing and talent to pull it off in the instant that it’s open, before the opportunity slips away.

We are very much a decision-making read team,” he said. “We’re not a motion team. But we’re a team where we put our guys in actions that are really familiar — that they really understand on an intellectual, mental level — that they can kind of get on a whiteboard and tell you, ‘If this happens, we do this. And if this happens, we do this.’ But then to actually make the read in real time under the duress of the game, that’s something that’s really important to us. …

“That’s something we really evaluate.”

That’s also the type of thing that takes more time and effort than simply looking at some stats or deeper analytics or even extensive video breakdown. It takes all that statistical and visual research, plus the fact-finding process of getting to know the player himself and how he thinks on and off the court.

Pope watched Chandler extensively as a high schooler and held him up as a standard for being able to process the game on the court. He said he was “really excited” about the addition of Amari Williams — a 6-10 player with a great passing touch and instinctual feel for basketball — after getting to know more about him and his game recently. Pope made it clear before Travis Perry’s all-in declaration Monday night that he wanted the Kentucky kid on his first UK roster.

At the time of his interview with the Herald-Leader, the new coach was not permitted to speak publicly about Richie Saunders, who was still undecided on his future, but Pope has heaped praise on BYU’s former sixth man in the past.

This past season at BYU — the program’s first in the highly competitive Big 12 — Pope employed an offense that was heavy on 3-point shooting, finishing second in the country with 32.0 long-range attempts per game.

While the 3-point shot is expected to remain a key piece of Pope’s offensive approach at Kentucky, he used it last season, in part, to close the talent gap. BYU was picked to finish 13th in the 14-team league during the preseason. They ended up fifth, with a winning conference record, good enough for a 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Pope is almost certain to land more talented — and more athletic — players at Kentucky than he had at BYU, but those principles of execution and attention to detail will remain key factors in what he and his assistant coaches look for on the recruiting trail.

“And we evaluate guys’ capability to work in a locker room,” Pope added. “Their leadership abilities. Their commitment to this game. We evaluate their goals. Like, what is the first thing that they say they care about, and what is the last thing they say they care about?”

Collin Chandler won state player of the year honors in Utah in 2022 after averaging 21.7 points, 4.3 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.7 steals per game as a high school senior.
Collin Chandler won state player of the year honors in Utah in 2022 after averaging 21.7 points, 4.3 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.7 steals per game as a high school senior.

Helping Pope recruit to UK

To help put together this first Kentucky team, Pope has turned to some familiar faces.

Cody Fueger and Jason Hart were officially announced as UK assistant coaches Monday. For all nine of Pope’s seasons as a head coach, Fueger has been one of his assistants. Hart, most recently the head coach of the G League Ignite program, was one of Pope’s teammates while an NBA rookie with the Milwaukee Bucks nearly 25 years ago.

They’ll fill two of UK’s five assistant coaching positions next season, and they’ll be two of the three staffers permitted to join Pope for off-campus recruiting activities. They wasted no time getting to work, and Pope’s enthusiasm for what he’s seen so far couldn’t be more clear.

“I’ll tell you the thing I’m most excited about,” Pope said, boundless energy in his voice. “Watching Cody and Jason in the last 36 hours — those two together are dangerous. I’m telling you, it’s really dangerous. This is the ‘artistic’ part of the mix. Those guys are both super humble. They’re both incredible experts in their field. Like on a nationwide level — experts in their field. They both have very distinct personalities. And we’ve already been in a bunch of arguments and confrontations and trying to work things out. And seeing those guys interact together, you’re like, ‘That’s what a team is, man.’ Because, already, a day in, you can see how they just riff off each other, and it feels natural.

“And they’re not the same guy. They’re very different guys. And the chemistry is brilliant. And that’s what we’re searching for on our staff. Is to find something where there’s a synergy, where the whole is way bigger than the sum of the parts. And I can feel that from those guys early on.”

Former Georgia head coach Mark Fox, who hired Pope as an assistant 15 years ago, is expected to be officially announced as one of two non-recruiting assistant coaches later this week.

Baylor’s Alvin Brooks III — a renowned recruiter under Scott Drew for the past eight seasons — will also join Pope’s staff as associate head coach, filling the remaining assistant spot that will be permitted to recruit off campus. Brooks’ hire likely won’t be officially finalized and announced until next week.

To start this week, it was Fueger and Hart joining Pope in the UK basketball offices. Pope said he was driving home from an event Monday night with his wife, Lee Anne, already talking excitedly of the staff that is coming together.

“This is exactly what we’re looking for,” he said. “This vibe and this feel.”

Pope noted Fueger’s time as a student assistant under legendary Utah coach Rick Majerus and how that kicked off a promising career.

“He’s a brilliant basketball mind,” Pope said of the 40-year-old assistant. “He was brought up by Rick Majerus — almost like Rick’s adopted son. Like that young. Learning from him, and Rick was one of the best to ever do it. And Cody just keeps pushing the envelope. He keeps pushing the envelope on the offensive side to where we’re getting to the really, really extremes of college basketball. And I dig it, man. I love it. That’s super exciting.”

Hart, who turns 46 next week, has coached several NBA draft picks over his past three years with the Ignite program and was an assistant coach at Southern Cal before that, helping guide the Trojans to the Elite Eight in his final season with the team. The former Syracuse point guard was also an NBA player for a decade.

“You’re not going to find a guy that’s more capable of mentoring basketball players in their development — in every single way — than Jason Hart,” Pope said. “He did it at the highest level for a long time. He earned his way there. He did it at the highest level of college basketball also. He’s done it at an incredibly high level of coaching. He’s got so much joy in his heart.

“He’s exactly the same guy that I got to play with when we were at the Milwaukee Bucks together. He’s just got a couple more gray hairs and a whole lot more war stories. I don’t know a single recruit that’s going to talk to him and not feel like, ‘Man, I want to go play for this guy.’ He’s really special.”

Jason Hart has most recently been the head coach of the G League Ignite team, which often featured top recruits who jumped straight from high school to the pros.
Jason Hart has most recently been the head coach of the G League Ignite team, which often featured top recruits who jumped straight from high school to the pros.

Closing the deal on future Cats

Pope, Fueger, Hart and the rest of Kentucky’s staff won’t have much free time on their hands in the coming weeks. In addition to building the 2024-25 roster from the ground up, the UK coaches will be hitting the trail soon to identify future recruits and form relationships with their families.

The first stop on the Nike EYBL circuit for 2024 takes place this weekend in Memphis, and the first in-person evaluation opportunity for college coaches is just three weeks away, when Pope and his staff will represent Kentucky at major events as they form their opinions on the next wave of high school prospects.

Pope and company will have to juggle that future planning with the roster-building efforts of the present. Saint Mary’s guard Aidan Mahaney is scheduled to visit Lexington this weekend, Utah State big man Great Osobor has already set an official visit to Kentucky for next week, and several other highly touted transfers have been linked to UK in recent days.

Time will tell which of those players emerge as likely Wildcats, and who comes to Lexington for a visit over the next couple of weeks will be worth tracking.

To the outside world, this process must seem exhausting. Pope hasn’t let that show. On every national TV appearance and each time he’s been spotted publicly over the past few days — often with a recruit alongside him — there’s been a smile on his face and pep in his step.

“I don’t know how to communicate the passion and excitement I have about this process,” Pope told the Herald-Leader on Tuesday.

To try and articulate the feeling, he told another story.

Early that morning and after a late night of work, Pope picked up a recruit — he couldn’t say who — from a hotel in Lexington so he could drive the player to Blue Grass Airport and see him on his way home. In the car, the player asked Pope if he had actually been able to get any sleep since taking over the Kentucky basketball program less than two weeks earlier.

According to Pope, this is what he said:

“Imagine taking on the biggest project of your entire lifetime. Like, it will be a defining thing in your career, but also a project where your whole heart and soul — and all your love and all your family — is in it. And it’s so exhilarating. Imagine getting to do what you love most in the world with who you love most in the world, facing the biggest challenge you’ve ever faced in your life. And that’s what we get to do right now.

“It’s pretty special, man,” he continued. “I can’t tell you how excited we are about doing this. We’re doing exactly what we want to do, exactly where we want to do it. And that’s awesome.”

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