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Kentucky Kernel

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COLUMN: It’s a new era for Kentucky basketball, and it’s a breath of fresh air

Abbey Cutrer
New University of Kentucky men’s basketball coach Mark Pope holds his first press conference on Sunday, April 14, 2024, at the Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo by Abbey Cutrer | Staff

Kentucky fans were formally introduced to new head coach Mark Pope on Sunday with his introductory press conference inside Rupp Arena.

Taking place in the 20,500-seater venue, Kentucky fans showed out, with thousands upon thousands of fans waiting outside for hours, some getting to the arena in the a.m. and filling Rupp Arena to the max.

Production crews were forced to take down curtains around the stage so more fans could see the festivities.

Mark Pope. Image source from X, formerly known as Twitter, @markpopeukcoach

It’s impossible to say what the first season under Pope will look like from a game perspective, but, just from initial impressions, it’s going to be a breath of fresh air for a fanbase that has been exclusively breathing smog for years.

Pope spoke for nearly 25 minutes with his opening statement and accepted media questions for another half hour and, in doing so, scratched an itch that had been unreachable for thousands of fans.

The last time Kentucky fans got to travel away from continental United States for a regular season game — apart from a special one-off make-up game against Michigan in London in 2022 — was a one-off in 2016 against Arizona State in the Bahamas.

The last time the Cats were in the Maui Invitational — an annual event in Hawaii that showcases the best of the best in college hoops — was 2010, the only time under former head coach John Calipari.

What did Pope have to say about that?

“What does everyone here think about a game with St. John’s?” Pope asked, alluding to his former head coach and current Red Storm head coach Rick Pitino. “Let’s just say sometime in the future we can find our way into this Maui tournament.”

As if that wasn’t fun enough for fans, who responded with a chorus of cheers, many had concerns regarding whether or not Pope would be able to maintain a high level of recruiting, while also having a counter concern that people were growing wary of one-and-dones.

Pope’s answer?

“It’s mostly figuring out if (the guys from last year and current commits) are a right fit for us,” he said. “It’s trying to find guys (in the portal) that fit here. Those guys are sometimes going to be one-and-done ‘burger boys’ for sure and sometimes those guys are gonna be guys that come here and play for four years and grow in your hearts and minds.”

Mark Pope. Image sourced from Instagram @coachmarkpope

Throughout his introductory press conference Pope also made it abundantly clear that he understood what it meant to come to Kentucky, using the word “gratitude” on numerous occasions.

For years, fans had felt as though many recruits — not all — came to Kentucky with the wrong attitude, disregarding the fans and school and prioritizing getting out as quickly as possible.

“Our players are gonna learn they’re not doing those jerseys a favor by letting them clothe them,” Pope said. “It’ll be one of the great honors of their life. I learned about gratitude here at Kentucky. Entitlement leads to sorrow and depression. Gratitude leads to joy.”

The new man in charge also heard fans’ complaints regarding how poorly Kentucky has done in recent SEC Tournaments after Calipari and Co. were one-and-done in Nashville this season for the second year in a row, failing to win an SEC Tournament title for the sixth year in a row, though the 2020 tournament was canceled.

“We don’t (moderate expectations) here at Kentucky, I understand the assignment. We are here to win championships,” Pope said. “We’re here to win banners in Nashville. Our assignment is to win banners in the Final Four and National Championships.”

From a more technical standpoint, Pope also touched on a need for change in coaching and administration as well as game philosophy, seemingly indicating that he intends to hire someone whose sole job is to maintain and handle proper NIL opportunities for players who come to Lexington.

“Our goal is to win every single game we play,” he said. “If you’re too worried or too cautious to take on the challenge (of winning in March), don’t come to Kentucky. At Kentucky we don’t come in second in anything. We’re going to be absurdly aggressive on offense and we’re going to change it up and keep people on their toes on defense.”

Pope even continued after the press conference, signing things for fans, introducing himself and chatting with members of the media, other coaches at the university and anyone who approached him, displaying a key understanding in what Kentucky had been missing for so many years.


Whether it’s success in the conference tournaments, taking part in major in-season tournaments, coaching for success and recruiting for a system — not building a system around recruiting — being present for fans and media, embracing NIL or simply loving Kentucky and all that comes with it, Mark Pope understands what it takes to be the head coach of this program.

There’s still a long offseason ahead including transfer portal business, re-recruiting current players and commits and building a staff, but the excitement around Pope and Kentucky is palpable. 20,000+ fans in Rupp Arena on a Sunday for a press conference is evidence enough of that.

It’s too early to predict fully what will happen year one or even year two with the Pope era, but, already, it seems to be exactly what Kentucky needed.

We won’t know until games are played if Kentucky will return to form on the court, but when it comes to the culture that surrounds the “greatest tradition in the history of college basketball,” Kentucky just might be Kentucky again.

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About the Contributors
Cole Parke, Sports Editor
Abbey Cutrer, Editor-in-Chief

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