You know what Mark Pope is doing. What’s John Calipari been up to down in Fayetteville?

By the time Mark Pope settled into his new job as the head coach of the University of Kentucky men’s basketball team, he had zero scholarship players and a major rebuilding job in front of him.

That was the situation left behind by John Calipari, who departed Lexington for the top job at Arkansas after 15 seasons at UK, all 10 of his underclassmen ultimately deciding to leave the Wildcats’ program, too.

Since that time — Calipari resigned April 9 and Pope was officially named Kentucky’s coach three days later — a total of 12 players have committed to the Cats, including the major addition of BYU leading scorer Jaxson Robinson out of the transfer portal Thursday.

And by the time Calipari settled into his new job as the head coach of the Razorbacks, he faced the exact same situation. In his first days in Fayetteville, the 65-year-old coach said that he wanted to call a team meeting. The problem? “There was no team,” Calipari joked.

This wasn’t another case of hyperbole from the Hall of Fame coach with a penchant for exaggeration. In this case, Calipari was telling the truth.

Nearly two months later, the Arkansas roster now sits at eight, and Calipari has been signaling for weeks that — when it comes to adding players — his work is nearly complete.

“We’re at eight. I’m ecstatic,” he told a group of reporters at the SEC meetings in Destin, Florida, this week. “I’m looking for one more guy, and that’s what we’re gonna have.”

That would put the Razorbacks’ roster at just nine players — four short of the scholarship limit — and Calipari has made clear time and again that he’s just fine with that number.

A couple of weeks ago, speaking to a gaggle of reporters in Little Rock, Calipari explained that he coaches every player on his team — not just the ones who get the most playing time — and in the current college basketball landscape rampant with roster movement and transfer portal activity, perhaps it’s best to go with fewer guys in the gym.

“Basically I’m preparing them and putting my soul in everything — for another guy to coach ’em,” Calipari said. “They’re gonna leave and go somewhere else. Well, how ’bout if I just focus on my eight or nine, and let me do that. … We’ll still recruit freshmen. But we just won’t have like last year, where we had seven freshmen. Can’t do that anymore.”

Calipari actually had eight freshmen on his final UK roster — he often left little-used guard Joey Hart out of the conversation when talking about his rotation last season — and that team lost to 14-seeded Oakland in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, the final game Calipari coached with the Wildcats.

His 2024-25 UK roster was set to have at least six freshmen — the No. 2-ranked recruiting class in the country at the time — until he left for Arkansas, breaking up that group of high schoolers and, either by choice or necessity, leading to a new strategy for his first season with the Hogs.

At the SEC meetings, Calipari talked about starting anew in Arkansas and reflected briefly on his time in Lexington.

“A breath of fresh air, you could say,” he said of his latest challenge. “Fifteen great years. I mean, we got a lot done. I think of last year’s team and what we were able to do and playing so many young guys. But the lesson was: You can’t do this now with seven freshmen. You just can’t.”

Former Kentucky coach John Calipari has built a roster that is getting top-25 consideration for his first season at Arkansas.
Former Kentucky coach John Calipari has built a roster that is getting top-25 consideration for his first season at Arkansas.

John Calipari’s coaching staff at Arkansas

UK basketball fans will see plenty of familiar faces on the visiting sideline when Arkansas comes to Rupp Arena during the 2024-25 campaign, a game that will mark Calipari’s return to the building and the only regular-season meeting between the two teams.

Calipari has filled all five assistant coaching positions on his staff.

He will have two associate head coaches: Chin Coleman, who spent the past three years as a UK assistant; and Kenny Payne, who was Calipari’s top assistant at Kentucky before spending the past two seasons as the head coach at Louisville.

His other three assistants will be Chuck Martin, who was on staff at UK last season, Ronnie Brewer — a former Arkansas standout and the only holdover from ex-coach Eric Musselman’s staff — and Brad Calipari, the head coach’s son, who was a former walk-on and graduate assistant at Kentucky before spending last season as a player development coach at Vanderbilt.

Former UK assistant Bruiser Flint is listed in the Arkansas staff directory as a member of the Hogs’ basketball program, though he’s not classified as an assistant coach. Calipari also said recently that former UK point guard Tyler Ulisa student assistant with the Wildcats the past two seasons — would follow him to Fayetteville, but there have been no official announcements regarding such a move.

Arkansas roster for 2024-25 season

So far, these are the eight players who have committed to the Razorbacks for Calipari’s first season (a group that includes three former Wildcats and three recruits who were expected to play for UK before the coach’s departure):

Jonas Aidoo: A starter for SEC champion Tennessee last season, Aidoo led the Vols with 7.3 rebounds and 1.8 blocked shots per game, finishing third on the squad with 11.4 points per game and earning second-team all-league honors, as well as an all-SEC defensive team selection. The 6-foot-11 post player has one season of eligibility remaining.

Johnell Davis: The most likely candidate to be Arkansas’ leading scorer next season, Davis — a 6-4 guard — helped lead Florida Atlantic to the Final Four in 2023 and was the Owls’ leading scorer this past season, averaging 18.2 points per game and shooting 41.4% from 3-point range. He was the No. 3-ranked transfer this offseason (according to both ESPN and 247Sports) and has one year of college eligibility remaining.

Boogie Fland: A former UK recruit, the 6-2 combo guard was the No. 19 overall prospect in the 2024 class, according to the 247Sports composite rankings.

Zvonimir Ivisic: The 7-2 forward from Croatia dazzled in his UK basketball debut — after sitting out for months amid an NCAA inquiry into his amateur status — but was mostly a disappointment in his only season at Kentucky, surely in part due to his late start getting onto the court. He’ll be one of the most intriguing players in college basketball next season.

Karter Knox: A 6-6 forward, Knox was the No. 21 overall player in the 2024 composite rankings after finishing his high school career at Overtime Elite. He’s the younger brother of former UK standout Kevin Knox and was committed to the Cats before Calipari’s exit.

Billy Richmond: Another former UK recruit, Richmond was the No. 26 prospect in the 2024 composite rankings. Calipari’s recruiting class is ranked sixth nationally by 247Sports, tops among programs with three or fewer players.

Adou Thiero: The 6-8 forward spent his first two college seasons at Kentucky, starting 19 of 25 games — while missing some time due to injury — and averaging 7.2 points and 5.0 rebounds as a sophomore. He’ll have two years of eligibility remaining, though a 2025 NBA mock draft from ESPN posted in late February listed Thiero as a first-round pick next year.

D.J. Wagner: Calipari’s starting point guard on his final Kentucky team, Wagner averaged 9.9 points and 3.3 assists per game last season. The 6-4 player joined UK teammates Rob Dillingham and Reed Sheppard — both projected NBA lottery picks this year — on the SEC’s all-freshman team.

That group of players has been enough to vault Arkansas onto the preseason top-25 lists from several national basketball outlets in recent days.

CBS Sports updated its rankings Thursday and placed the Razorbacks at No. 15 nationally. ESPN’s Top 25, also updated Thursday morning, has Arkansas at No 16 in the country. CBS Sports insider Jon Rothstein mentioned the Hogs as a possible top-10 team next season following Wagner’s commitment a few days ago, and that’s with Calipari’s roster likely still incomplete.

Adou Thiero will spend next season at Arkansas after playing for the Kentucky Wildcats for the past two years.
Adou Thiero will spend next season at Arkansas after playing for the Kentucky Wildcats for the past two years.

Who’s next for the Razorbacks?

If Calipari sticks to his public plan and adds just one more player, who will it be?

Former Illinois forward Coleman Hawkins is likely the top target to watch as the new Arkansas coach rounds out his roster.

Hawkins — a 6-foot-10, 225-pound senior — has played the past four seasons at Illinois, starting every game he’s appeared in over the past two years and averaging 12.1 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.7 assists last season for the Illini, who reached the Elite Eight.

Other potential additions could emerge in the coming days — now that the NBA draft deadline has passed — but it’s unlikely that Calipari will add any more ex-Cats to his first Arkansas team.

The only uncommitted UK player from last season’s squad is Ugonna Onyenso, and he is not expected to return to Lexington or follow Calipari to Fayetteville. All of UK’s other scholarship players from last season who stayed in college have already found new homes: Aaron Bradshaw (Ohio State), Jordan Burks (Georgetown) and Joey Hart (Ball State).

Hawkins, who is projected to land a seven-figure NIL promise wherever he ends up, would pair nicely with Aidoo as a starting frontcourt player in Fayetteville next season. Hawkins, if Calipari can get his commitment, would put the Hogs at nine players, the sweet spot that he’s been talking about for weeks.

Obviously, that won’t be enough to put together a five-on-five scrimmage, but Calipari has talked about filling out the rest of his roster with graduate assistants — possibly with an international playing background — who can be competitive in practices and/or walk-ons who would receive full scholarship benefits but would not cut into NIL resources devoted to his main players.

Whether or not Arkansas lands Hawkins — or some other impact player — there’s already plenty of talent on Calipari’s next roster. Aidoo was an all-league selection last season, Davis has been a mid-major star, all three of the players who followed him from UK have all-SEC upside, and his trio of recruits should all project among the top freshmen in the league.

Outside shooting — a frequent cause for concern with Calipari teams, before last season — could be a question mark. Lack of depth will also be a major talking point if Calipari goes through with his stated plan.

Ivisic and Thiero both missed several games — and long stretches of practice — due to injury last season, and Wagner was also briefly sidelined with an ankle injury before playing most of his freshman year at less than 100% health.

Calipari, who often said during his time at UK that he liked to go with shorter rotations, especially late in seasons, doesn’t seem too bothered by the possibility of too few players in Fayetteville.

“Somebody said, ‘Well, what if you have injuries?’ If the wrong guy gets injured on any team in this country, you’re done. I don’t care if you have eight guys, nine guys, 15, 16 guys (if) the wrong guys get injured,” he said at the SEC meetings. “And so my thing is, if a couple guys get injured, I’ll have six really happy players, because they’ll play all the minutes.”

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