Mark Story: One big way that Mark Pope's coaching will differ from John Calipari's

Mark Story, Lexington Herald-Leader on

Published in Basketball

LEXINGTON, Ky. — The commitment to Kentucky by Fairleigh Dickinson forward Ansley Almonor as a transfer Thursday morning brought the number of scholarship players for Mark Pope’s first UK team up to 11.

A 6-foot-7, 219-pound forward, Almonor is a career 38.5% 3-point shooter. The product of Spring Valley, N.Y., a senior-to-be, should give Pope an ideal option when the new UK coach wishes to deploy a “small ball” 4 man.

As to the larger picture, in a podcast interview this week with Jon Rothstein of CBS Sports, Pope expressed the desire to enter 2024-25 with 13 scholarship players — the NCAA maximum for men’s basketball — on the first Wildcats roster he will coach.

During these impatient times, it is reasonable to wonder whether a head man can keep a 13-man roster engaged and happy. Based upon his past, however, Pope would be near the top of the list among the coaches best equipped to make good use of a large roster.

Like his college coach at UK, Rick Pitino, Pope is a believer in using his bench. Consider:

— Over his prior two seasons as head man at BYU, Pope has not had one player average 30 minutes of playing time a game.

— For both of the past two years, Pope deployed a 10-man rotation. In 2022-23, BYU’s 10 rotation players averaged between 10.2 and 29 minutes of action a game. This past season, the range of average playing time for the Cougars’ top 10 players was between 10 and 27 minutes.

— Overall during his five-year stint as BYU head man, Pope had only four players who averaged 30 minutes of playing time a game or more (though one of those, guard Alex Barcello, did it three different seasons).

— For his five seasons (2019 through 2024) at Brigham Young University, Pope’s regular playing rotations were eight players (2019-20), 10 (2020-21), nine (2021-22), 10 (2022-23) and 10 (this past season).

Assuming Pope continues to utilize his team’s personnel in the same manner at Kentucky as he did at BYU, UK men’s basketball will be making a fairly stark departure from the common practices of the John Calipari era.

While there were two notable exceptions — the two-platoon system in 2014-15 and this past season’s 10-deep substitution pattern — Calipari at UK mostly preferred a tight playing rotation.

Where Pope had only four players average more than 30 minutes a game in his five seasons at BYU, Calipari had 13 players average 30 minutes or more at Kentucky during the same five years.


On Calipari’s first Final Four team at UK in 2010-11, the Cats had six players who appeared in all 38 games and all averaged between 28.5 minutes a game (Josh Harrellson) and 35.9 minutes a game (Brandon Knight).

Kentucky’s 2011-12 NCAA championship team used a seven-player rotation that saw six of the seven players appear in all 40 games. The six leading scorers averaged between 26.1 (Darius Miller) and 32.6 (Marquis Teague) minutes a game.

UK’s 2016-17 Elite Eight team used a seven-man rotation in which the top four players — Malik Monk (32.1), Isaiah Briscoe (30.1), Bam Adebayo (30.1) and De’Aaron Fox (29.6) — all played roughly 30 minutes a game.

In Oscar Tshiebwe’s national player of the year season in 2021-22, Kentucky employed a seven-man rotation in which the top players all averaged between 17 and 32 minutes a game.

Moving forward, it appears that Kentucky and Calipari are heading down very different paths in terms of roster construction.

Now that he is the boss Hog at Arkansas, Calipari apparently wants to double down on the small rosters. On a recent episode of the “Ways to Win” podcast hosted by ex-Oregon State coach Craig Robinson, Calipari said he only wants “eight or nine” scholarship players on his rosters moving forward.

Calipari sited the prevalence of players transferring in the current era and said he saw no reason to coach developmental players you would essentially be getting ready for their next school.

Pope and Kentucky would seem to be making exactly the opposite bet.

If UK going forward will be using 10-player rotations, that could potentially create more opportunity for players who are not ready to be one-and-done pros to carve out meaningful reserve roles for the Wildcats early in their careers rather than just sitting the bench and watching the stars play 30 minutes plus.

The question to be answered is whether, under Pope, might players the caliber of, say, Charles Matthews or Bryce Hopkins — to name two Calipari-era Cats who played sparingly at UK as freshmen only to become multi-year standouts after transferring to Michigan and Providence, respectively — log enough meaningful time as part of big rotations early in their Kentucky careers that they are comfortable staying in Lexington to do their multi-year development at UK?

If yes, that would be a welcome outgrowth arising from Mark Pope’s devotion to building depth — and using it.

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