Who will be on the Kentucky basketball roster for Mark Pope’s first season as head coach?

Mark Pope will be the next men’s basketball coach at the University of Kentucky, replacing John Calipari, who stepped down from the position earlier this week after 15 years on the job.

Pope will have his work cut out for him to build a formidable roster for his first season in charge.

Even before Calipari’s departure — he was announced as the new head coach at Arkansas on Wednesday — the outlook for the Wildcats’ 2024-25 season was filled with uncertainty.

Calipari had lined up the nation’s No. 2 recruiting class — a group featuring six high school prospects from the 2024 class — but there was little in the way of guarantees beyond that.

Though 10 of Kentucky’s 12 scholarship players from this past season were underclassmen, none had publicly pledged to return to Lexington by the time Calipari announced his resignation Tuesday, and it was expected that the majority of those Wildcats would be playing basketball elsewhere by the time the 2024-25 campaign began.

With Calipari gone, the situation is even more precarious.

Here’s a look at what Pope can expect following the official announcement Friday morning that he will be UK’s next head coach.

Kentucky players on the move

Of the 12 scholarship players on Kentucky’s 2023-24 roster, only Antonio Reeves and Tre Mitchell, who played their fifth years of college basketball, are out of NCAA eligibility. But, as of Saturday night, more than half of the remaining group had already announced their intentions to play elsewhere next season.

Rob Dillingham: UK’s second leading scorer is projected as a lottery pick in the 2024 NBA draft after establishing himself as one of the most gifted backcourt players in the country this past season. Dillingham revealed that he would enter the draft — and forgo his remaining three years of eligibility — shortly after Calipari stepped down Tuesday, though he was certain to make that move even if the coach had returned to Lexington.

Justin Edwards: Projected as a possible first-round NBA pick this year following his freshman season with the Wildcats, the 6-foot-8 guard from Philadelphia has also entered the draft and will not return to the Wildcats for a second year. Edwards started 30 games this past season, second only to Reeves, who was a starter in all 33 of Kentucky’s games.

Adou Thiero: Perhaps UK’s most physical player during the 2023-24 season, Thiero battled injuries but established himself as a key member of the Wildcats’ rotation. He has entered the NBA draft — he’s not projected as a pick — and put his name in the transfer portal, though he announced last month that he was open to returning to Lexington after going through both processes. That was before Calipari left to take the head coaching position at Arkansas, however, and the most likely scenario is that Thiero will play elsewhere in college basketball next season.

Zvonimir Ivisic: While he was seemingly a perfect fit for Pope’s modernized offense, Ivisic didn’t wait around to get to know the new Kentucky coach. He entered his name in the transfer portal Saturday — on the eve of Pope’s formal introduction as UK’s next coach — and could end up following Calipari to Arkansas for the 2024-25 season.

Aaron Bradshaw: While not widely projected as a draft pick, Bradshaw has entered the NBA draft and put his name in the transfer portal. It’s unclear which route he will ultimately choose, but he is not expected to reverse course and return to Kentucky.

Joey Hart: The Indiana native played only 10 minutes — spread across seven games — as a freshman, and he has entered the transfer portal. He’s expected to play somewhere else next season.

Kentucky freshmen D.J. Wagner, left, Reed Sheppard, center and Zvonimir Ivisic were all still undecided on their futures for next season when it became clear that Mark Pope would be the Wildcats’ next coach.
Kentucky freshmen D.J. Wagner, left, Reed Sheppard, center and Zvonimir Ivisic were all still undecided on their futures for next season when it became clear that Mark Pope would be the Wildcats’ next coach.

Still waiting on decisions

Four other players from the current Kentucky roster have not made any kind of public declaration regarding their basketball futures, now more than three weeks removed from the team’s season-ending loss to Oakland in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

College players have until April 27 to declare for the NBA draft and May 1 is the deadline to put their names in the transfer portal. Any player who enters the draft will have until May 29 — 10 days after the NBA Draft Combine ends — to remove their name from consideration and return to school.

Reed Sheppard: The national freshman of the year is still contemplating his future, even though he’s projected as a top-10 pick in the NBA draft. Logic says he enters the draft and stays there, but his father — former UK basketball star Jeff Sheppard — was roommates with Mark Pope in college, and the two were teammates for three years with the Wildcats, including the 1996 NCAA championship season. Jeff Sheppard told the Herald-Leader on Friday that his son was still working through the process and had not made a decision on what’s next.

Pope entering the picture as Kentucky’s head coach certainly can’t hurt UK’s chances of retaining Reed for a second season — Jeff Sheppard was ecstatic about Pope’s hire — but it’s far from a guarantee that he’ll be back. For Kentucky fans, it’s probably safest to assume he’ll stay in the draft, but — until he makes an announcement — anything is possible.

D.J. Wagner: Before Calipari’s exit, there appeared to be a realistic chance that Wagner, whose father starred for the UK coach at Memphis, would return for a second season as Kentucky’s starting point guard. Now that Calipari is gone, expect the 18-year-old to follow suit.

Ugonna Onyenso: After wrapping up his sophomore season as UK’s starting center, Onyenso is now viewed as a possible draft pick — ESPN has him at No. 47 overall on its most recent rankings of the top 100 NBA draft prospects — and it’s likely that he will either enter the draft, enter the portal (or both). Whatever he does, he’s not expected to return to Lexington, though his future is not as personally tied to Calipari as some others on this list.

Jordan Burks: His playing time decreased dramatically after Bradshaw, Ivisic and Onyenso made their debuts this past season, and — while the potential for PT is abundant at the moment — it’s expected that Burks will move on to another school.

UK basketball recruiting class

Calipari had six commitments in his class of 2024 before it became clear that he would be taking the head coaching position at Arkansas, and that group is already breaking apart.

Somto Cyril: Calipari’s first commitment for the 2024 class has backed out of that pledge.

Boogie Fland: The five-star point guard considered Kentucky a “dream school” growing up, but — like all recruits in the 2024 class — Calipari is the only coach he remembers ever being in charge of the program. Fland is still committed, but he’s expected to explore his options.

Karter Knox: The younger brother of ex-UK star Kevin Knox has already decommitted from Kentucky and will be looking elsewhere.

Travis Perry: Kentucky’s Mr. Basketball and the state’s all-time leading scorer, Perry — a 6-2 guard — is expected to remain in UK’s class, though there’s been no such announcement yet.

Jayden Quaintance: At 16 years old, Quaintance won’t be eligible for the NBA draft until 2026 — a fact that made him a projected two-year player at UK — but he has already decommitted from the Wildcats and is not expected to return to the class. Quaintance was also a top-10 national recruit, the highest-rated prospect in Kentucky’s class.

Billy Richmond: The star guard from New Jersey — where he was teammates with Bradshaw and Wagner — hasn’t announced a decommitment, but that’s expected to come soon. Richmond’s father played for Calipari at Memphis.

Jaxson Robinson was BYU’s leading scorer this past season, and he could follow Mark Pope to Kentucky.
Jaxson Robinson was BYU’s leading scorer this past season, and he could follow Mark Pope to Kentucky.

Will Pope bring players from BYU?

ESPN had BYU, which was a 6 seed in this year’s NCAA Tournament, at No. 14 nationally in its “way-too-early” preseason Top 25 rankings, a list posted Monday night after the national championship game. That’s a testament to the job Pope and his coaching staff had accomplished in building a potential roster for next season.

Some of the difference-makers who might be most likely to follow Pope to Lexington:

Jaxson Robinson: The leading scorer for BYU this past season — at 14.2 points per game — Robinson, a 6-7 guard, is No. 55 in ESPN’s NBA draft rankings, so he might be unlikely to return to college. If he does, it would not be a surprise at all to see him follow Pope to Lexington, where he’d likely be one of UK’s best players, no matter who returns from the current Wildcats’ team or who else the new UK coaching staff can get out of the transfer portal. ESPN’s preseason ranking of BYU at No. 14 did not have Robinson on the projected roster, another indication of the strength of the team Pope had assembled for next season.

Collin Chandler: The No. 33 overall recruit in the 2022 class — and BYU’s top-ranked commitment in nearly a decade — will return to the United States soon from a two-year mission trip and was planning to join Pope’s team for next season. It’s not yet clear if Chandler will remain with BYU, and — if he doesn’t — the 6-4 guard could be a candidate to join the Wildcats instead. The other two signees in BYU’s 2024 recruiting class were combo guard Brooks Bahr (No. 109 nationally) and power forward Isaac Davis (No. 116).

Dallin Hall: A 6-4 sophomore guard and BYU’s leader in assists with 5.1 per game this past season, Hall entered his name in the transfer portal Friday, within 24 hours of Pope accepting the job at Kentucky.

Aly Khalifa: Another regular starter, Khalifa — a 6-11 big man from Egypt with elite passing skills — also entered the portal Friday and included a “do not contact” tag, which is often (but not always) a sign that a player intends to follow his coach to a new school. Khalifa averaged 5.7 points, 3.7 rebounds and 4.0 assists in 19.4 minutes per game while playing a unique role in Pope’s offense this past season.

Pope’s 2024-25 roster at Kentucky

Who stays, who goes and who follows Pope from Provo?

It’ll be interesting to monitor those developments in the coming days and weeks.

Obviously, Sheppard would be an amazing addition for the new Kentucky coach, though the likelihood of his return should still probably be set at less than 50%, even with the tight family connection.

If he doesn’t return — barring a surprise from Thiero or Onyenso — perhaps no scholarship players will be back from last season’s electric roster, and Pope really will be starting from scratch in year one.

Expect Perry to stick with Kentucky, his dream school growing up in the state. A handful of BYU players — and possibly a recruit or two — could also follow Pope to UK, which will have 13 scholarships to work with for the 2024-25 season.

It’ll be imperative for Pope to get started right away with putting his coaching staff together — some of his assistants from BYU are expected to follow — and to get to work in the transfer portal, which remains open for players to enter until May 1. (As long as prospective transfers have put their names in the portal by that date, they can commit to a new school at any time after the window closes.)

Pope should have a healthy amount of NIL resources to work with — UK athletics director Mitch Barnhart said Friday morning that $4 million had already been pledged toward the program following the hire of the new coach — and he plays a fun and innovative offensive style that should attract players in the portal.

He’ll be looking for the right roster fits as he builds the foundation for this new era of Kentucky basketball, and just how good the Wildcats can be in his first season will be difficult to predict. But Pope has proven himself to be a “relentless recruiter” — in the words of his college coach, Rick Pitino — under unique circumstances at BYU. And, with the full power of the Kentucky basketball brand behind him, Pope should find a winning formula rather quickly, on and off the court. He’ll be expected to do nothing less.

Pope likely won’t recruit at the level of Calipari — other than Duke, who does? — but he should bring more continuity to the program, once he settles in. And while it could be a bumpy beginning, that will be a welcome change for a large contingent of Kentucky fans.

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