Mark Pope hasn’t won a tournament game, but the BYU coach brings something else to Kentucky

He isn’t Nate Oats or Dan Hurley, but Mark Pope might still offer something valuable to the Wildcats.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young Cougars head coach Mark Pope watches during the game against the Houston Cougars in Provo on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2024.

Kentucky went off the beaten path — almost off the map, some fans might say — for its replacement of John Calipari.

After searching around in Waco, Tuscaloosa and Storrs, athletic director Mitch Barnhart eventually found his guy in Provo. BYU head coach Mark Pope is now off to Kentucky, taking one of college basketball’s biggest jobs.

How did Pope land in Lexington? Here is his unconventional CV.

The basketball mind

Let’s go back to 2013. Pope was a young assistant at BYU under Dave Rose. He had just dropped out of medical school at Columbia, bouncing around on Georgia and Wake Forest’s staffs before landing in Provo.

In line with his Ivy background, Pope came in as a numbers guy. Analytics programs for basketball, like Synergy, were just coming into form.

Pope spent the entire 2013 season doing a deep dive on BYU guard Tyler Haws.

Haws was a full-time starter his sophomore year. He averaged over 20 points a game in the West Coast Conference. But Pope crunched every data set to get Haws, a 6-foot-5 guard, to be more efficient.

The next year, Haws became the WCC player of the year. He scored 23 points per game and shot over 40% from three.

That was the foundation of Pope’s offensive vision — and he has doubled down on it in recent years.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mark Pope as BYU hosts Cincinnati, NCAA basketball in Provo on Saturday, Jan. 6, 2024.

As a head coach of BYU, Pope overhauled his offense in the name of modern analytics. He leaned into shooting threes — hoisting more of them than any team in the country.

He played five-out basketball with a big man who acted more like a point guard (think Nikola Jokic). With the floor spaced, he generated shot after shot — occasionally getting easy layups when teams ran the Cougars off the line. And to counteract a bad shooting night, he deployed an unorthodox rebounding strategy called wedging that could get BYU more offensive boards and kickouts for more looks.

He hired an analytics guru, Keegan Brown, to help build his vision. Brown was responsible for finding Aly Khalifa, the big man who fit the five-out system, and for the rebounding strategy BYU found in Australia.

The approach ultimately made BYU the No. 14 most efficient offense in the country this year.

That style of play undoubtedly piqued Kentucky’s interest. With better recruits and resources, Pope could make it work in the SEC. It is a variation of what Alabama runs with Nate Oats. The Crimson Tide just made the Final Four and were the No. 1 overall seed in 2022.

The basketball pedigree

Pope’s Kentucky connections are well documented by now. He was Rick Pitino’s captain on the 1996 national championship team. Pitino recruited him out of the University of Washington as a transfer.

But the part of Pope’s background that shouldn’t be overlooked is how close Pope and Pitino still are.

Throughout his coaching career, Pitino helped Pope. He came to Provo and stayed in Pope’s house over the summer.

Pope speaks highly of his former coach as a person. He says he “changed him.” But he also speaks highly of Pitino the leader — as a coach who knew when to ride his players and when to back off (like before a national title game).

Pope is a much different personality than the former Kentucky coach, but he can wear on players like Pitino.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) BYU coach Mark Pope as BYU plays Fresno State in NCAA basketball at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 1, 2023. BYU won 85-56.

Beyond Pitino, Pope was also coached by Larry Bird on the Indiana Pacers. He spent time with George Karl on the Bucks. Plus, you can’t forget Pope was around current Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone when Malone was the video coordinator on the Knicks.

The unprecedented candidate

Pope’s hire at Kentucky can’t be broken down without stating the obvious: This is a true shock.

There is a reason Pope wasn’t high on Kentucky’s list. Baylor’s Scott Drew, UConn’s Dan Hurley, Alabama’s Nate Oats — they’ve all won big. Chicago Bulls coach Billy Donovan was the last person to win back-to-back national titles at Florida before Hurley just did it. All of those guys were ahead of Pope in line.

Simply put, Pope hasn’t won an NCAA Tournament game.

That makes this a nearly unprecedented hire for Kentucky. The Wildcats haven’t hired a coach without a tournament win since the 1970s, when they promoted Adolph Rupp’s longtime assistant.

This is a gamble.

Pope has only been to two NCAA Tournaments and has been a head coach for less than 10 years. He took over at Utah Valley in 2016. In the WCC and the WAC, he authored five, 20-win seasons.

Pope finished sixth in the Big 12 this year. He won 23 games.

The vision

For all the talk of a big man renaissance in college basketball this year, there is one underlying thread: Analytically driven offenses are winning big.

Alabama, from the SEC, went to the Final Four because they followed the numbers. UConn, even with its 7-foot-2 center, married itself to the analytics. It had the most efficient offense in the country this year. Purdue, with Zach Edey, was fourth.

So it might be Kentucky’s play to go all-in on that approach. Pope will bring that vision to Lexington.

Oats certainly would have been Kentucky’s first option. But why not bring in somebody who will mold the offense in a similar way?