What will new Kentucky basketball coach Mark Pope’s offense look like? Bombs away!

If it’s a modern offense Kentucky basketball fans want, then new coach Mark Pope is here to deliver.

In his four seasons at BYU, Pope tweaked his offensive strategy from time to time, but in 2023-24 the Cougars featured a five-out, well-spaced offensive attack that averaged 81.4 points per game and attempted more 3-pointers per game at 32.0 than all but one team in the country — North Florida at 33.2.

(New Louisville coach Pat Kelsey’s offense at Charleston finished third nationally in 3-point attempts per game at 30.6. Yes, Cats-Cards next December at Rupp Arena is going to be bombs away.)

“I know it’s a cliché, but they live and die by the 3-pointer,” said Jay Drew, who covers BYU basketball for the Deseret News. “It wasn’t always that way. When they got the invitation to the Big 12, he basically reinvented the wheel, so to speak at BYU. He said, ‘Hey, the only way that we can narrow the talent gap with Big 12 teams is by playing this style.”

Pope’s stated goal was to take 35 3-point shots per game. BYU made 34.8% of those 3-pointers. The Cougars attempted more 3-pointers (50.4%) than 2-pointers (49.6%).

“BYU is unique,” Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said this season. “I mean they’re just different than everybody we play because of the 3-point line.”

“If you’ve watched Alabama play, I think that most closely resembles BYU’s offensive style, or what it was this past season,” Drew said.

The more people you talk to about the BYU offense the more you hear the Alabama comparison. Heavy on analytics and 3-point shooting — Alabama averaged 29.9 3-point shots per game in 2023-24 — Oats coached the Crimson Tide to its first Final Four appearance this season, with Bama finishing No. 1 nationally in points per game at 90.1 and No. 2 in adjusted offensive efficiency, according to Ken Pomeroy’s numbers. BYU finished 14th in efficiency.

“Stylistically apt, and what a fitting reminder that March does whatever it wants,” ESPN college basketball analyst John Gasaway said. “The similarities resulted in very different tournament outcomes. Still, both Alabama and BYU attempted a high number of threes and both ranked No. 1 in their leagues for two-point accuracy. The Crimson Tide preferred to do all of the above at a somewhat faster pace.”

The Tide ranked 14th in adjusted tempo, compared to the Cougars’ 84th. Alabama ranked third in average possession length. BYU ranked 63rd. Kentucky was 12th in adjusted tempo and 18th in possession length this past season.

“It’s basically a style that relies more on execution and finesse than it does on athleticism, which is kind of the hand he has been dealt with at BYU,” Drew said.

BYU guard Dallin Hall (30) shoots over Kansas guard Dajuan Harris Jr. (3) during a game on Feb. 27 in Lawrence, Kansas. The Cougars won 76-68.
BYU guard Dallin Hall (30) shoots over Kansas guard Dajuan Harris Jr. (3) during a game on Feb. 27 in Lawrence, Kansas. The Cougars won 76-68.

“They were eighth in the country in two-point percentage,” Rivals analyst David Sisk said. “The other thing was they rebound the ball very, very well. They were in the 20s in about every rebounding category. So that was interesting.”

BYU’s approach worked. Picked to finish 13th in the Big 12, the Cougars finished tied for fourth with a 10-8 record to earn a No. 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament. They beat future No. 2 NCAA Tournament seed Iowa State, No. 11-ranked Baylor and then No. 7-ranked Kansas in Lawrence before being losing to Duquesne 71-66 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

“They weren’t supposed to sniff the tournament, but Pope made BYU way more than the sum of its parts,” said Evan Miyakawa, a college basketball metrics analyst. “Though they had a disappointing first-round loss, their success in a loaded Big 12 should be considered more heavily in my opinion.”

Two of Pope’s top assistant coaches at BYU were a pair of analytics specialists in Keegan Brown and Cody Fueger. Brown’s title was “director of video and analytics strategy.” Fueger is the “architect of this offense,” Drew said.

“Mark is very, very heavy into analytics,” Drew said. “He would literally have a guy going in for a layup and he would find a guy beyond the arc and throw a pass to fire up a three. In the postgame Mark would say, ‘I tell my guys if you don’t shoot an open three, you’re going to be sitting next to me on the bench.’”

How about BYU’s defense? The Cougars finished 60th in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency.

“They actually guarded pretty well,” Sisk said. “You think about teams that shoot the ball a lot, take a lot of threes, that might not guard. But it looks like they guarded well.”

So how will Pope’s approach work at Kentucky, where winning is expected and national championships are the goal?

“Mark Pope’s offense will bring a new innovative approach to the SEC,” Miyakawa said. “If we make the safe assumption that he will have a better cast of characters at UK than at BYU, I’m very excited to see what he can do.”

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