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Big blue historian: Looking back at Mark Pope’s only head coaching appearance in Rupp Arena

Freshman forward Nick Richards is double-teamed in the post during the game against Utah Valley on Friday, November 10, 2017 in Lexington, Ky. Kentucky won the game 73-63.

Kentucky fans were sent into a frenzy on Thursday night when it was reported that Mark Pope would be the next head coach of the Kentucky Wildcats.

Pope, who had been leading the BYU Cougars — starting in the West Coast Conference (WCC) and moving into the Big 12 — for five seasons, had connections to Kentucky, winning the 1996 national championship under then head coach Rick Pitino. He shared the honors with Jeff Sheppard, who may or may not have fathered a successful basketball player Kentucky fans will also be familiar with.

Freshman forward Kevin Knox drives the ball down the lane during the game against Utah Valley on Friday, November 10, 2017 in Lexington, Ky. Kentucky won the game 73-63.

Despite what many would expect, if Pope is hired to be the man at the helm his first game in the 2024-25 season will not be the first time he’s stepped on the court at Rupp Arena as a head coach.

No, for that historic moment in Pope’s career, fans will have to travel back to the ancient historical year of 2017. There were practically still dinosaurs roaming around.

Pope, the proud head coach of the Utah Valley Wolverines — Pope’s first head coaching gig after three destinations as an assistant coach — returned to Lexington for a matchup with the Cats on Nov. 10 in a game that kicked off the regular season for both teams.

The preseasons couldn’t have been more different. Kentucky, led by John Calipari, boasted a roster of seven future NBA players and 10 guys who would play professional basketball in some capacity.

Perhaps most famous were multiple time NBA All Star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and current NBA talents Jarred Vanderbilt and P.J. Washington, along with other big names like Kevin Knox II, Nick Richards, Wenyen Gabriel and Hamidou Diallo.

UK had played three exhibition games, winning by an average 36 points against in-state opponents including Division-I Morehead State. Against the non Division-I foes, Centre College and Thomas More, the Cats won by an average of 42.5 points. Oh, yeah, and none of the three exhibitions had fewer than 14,000 people in attendance, with two closer to 20,000.

Coming into Rupp in his third season as head coach, Pope and Co. had only one exhibition game under their belt: an 11-point win over Dixie State — which has since been renamed Utah Tech — in front of less than 1,500 fans.

That Wolverine squad boasted just two players who even have a Wikipedia page about them and none who reached the NBA. The most successful, Kenneth Ogbe, returned to his home country of Germany after going undrafted and still plays for EWE Baskets Oldenburg.

Marching into Rupp Arena, Pope and his team showed no fear despite the close to 20,000 fans in attendance for the season opener.

Freshman guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander drives the ball down the baseline during the game against Utah Valley on Friday, November 10, 2017 in Lexington, Ky. Kentucky won the game 73-63.

No, in a stunning display of grit and determination, the Wolverines entered the halftime break not trailing, but leading by nine points 34-25.

Calipari was forced to change tactics and move into a zone to shut down the Wolverines with his young and inexperienced roster, something that will get a chuckle out of Kentucky fans in 2024.

“We went zone and it kind of got us going,” Calipari said. “That’s what we should use the zone for. We had too many guys that were just getting beat on the dribble, too many guys out of position. That’s what happens when you have all freshmen and a couple of sophomores.”

Kentucky out-scored UVU 48-29 in the second half with Diallo netting 18 points while Gilgeous-Alexander and Knox II added 13 and 12 respectively.

For the Wolverines, Ogbe had 12 in what was likely a standout moment of his college career in terms of the stage he did it on.

Despite his team’s readiness early and grit, the talent of Kentucky was too much for Pope and Utah Valley.

“We haven’t spent a lot of time preparing (for the) zone yet,” Pope said. “It did what it was intended to do. It made us a little bit more passive and our guys don’t have a feel for it, so what happened wasn’t transition defense. It was turnovers in transition defense that really killed us.”

Kentucky would go on to finish the regular season 21-10 before winning the SEC Tournament championship.

Kentucky freshman guard Kevin Knox shoots a 3-pointer during the game against Utah Valley on Friday, November 10, 2017 in Lexington, Ky. Kentucky won the game 73-63. Photo by Carter Gossett | Staff

Most of that has since been forgotten however, as what lay fresh in Kentucky fans’ minds is that the Cats choked in the Sweet Sixteen against No. 9 Kansas State in a region that seemed wide open for a run to the Final Four. The team that escaped the region? No. 11 Loyola Chicago.

An 11 seed escaping UK’s bracket to make the Final Four is likely another thing that may get a chuckle out of Kentucky fans in the year 2024.

As for the Wolverines, Pope had the squad in shape to finish the season 21-9 before a defeat in the WAC semifinals against No. 3 Grand Canyon — a death sentence in a one-bid league — ensured the team wouldn’t sniff the NCAA Tournament.

Instead entering the College Basketball Invitational (CBI), Pope and Co. rolled past Eastern Washington before falling victim to the Dons of San Francisco.

The CBI appearance would be the second of three Pope would make before being offered a much better job just 10 minutes away from the campus of Utah Valley: BYU.

The rest, as many will already know, is history. Calipari never got his groove back and fled for Arkansas and Pope, whether controversial or not, is expected to become the next head coach of his alma mater Kentucky.

While an inconsequential one at the end of the day, Kentucky versus Utah Valley on a cold November night in 2017 is a part of Big Blue history and, depending on the success of Pope, could have been the first of many games inside one of college basketball’s most storied venues as head coach. For that, we’ll just have to wait and see.

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Cole Parke, Sports Editor

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