Mark Pope, known for offense, is building his first Kentucky basketball roster on defense

LEXINGTON — Kentucky coach Mark Pope's wide-ranging introductory news conference April 14 lasted nearly 50 minutes. Between his opening statement and the answers to media members' questions, Pope uttered more than 4,000 words.

"Defense" only was verbalized twice.

The lack of emphasis on "defense" during his first news conference as UK's coach belies how important it became when he began constructing the roster for the 2024-25 season.

The Wildcats' first four transfer portal additions — guards Lamont Butler and Otega Oweh, forward Amari Williams and center Brandon Garrison — boast sterling defensive credentials.

Williams won the Coastal Athletic Association's Defensive Player of the Year award the last three seasons, leading that league in blocks per game each time. Butler earned the Mountain West Conference Defensive Player of the Year accolade the past two seasons. Oweh averaged 1.5 steals per game in 2023-24, with 12 outings of two (or more) steals, including seven against Green Bay. Garrison blocked 1.5 shots per game.

Williams kicked things off April 21, becoming the first transfer commit of Pope's tenure.

"At times, Amari Williams looks like a man among boys on the court," Pope said in a statement announcing Williams' signing. "He is a three-time conference defensive player of the year, which is incredibly hard to do. He is bringing a big presence to the game and is going to serve as a rim-protector and rebounder. Amari is a gifted defensive player who can switch onto any position, one through five, which will add security to how everybody else feels on the court."

Butler was next in line, joining the fold April 26 after appearing in 132 games (including 102 starts) in the past four seasons at San Diego State — hitting an iconic, game-winning shot in the 2023 Final Four to clinch a spot in the national championship contest. After Butler's addition became official, Pope said the 6-foot-2, 205-pound guard "might be the best perimeter defensive player" in college basketball.

"I don't know if there's a guy that's got more winning DNA," Pope said of Butler in an interview with college basketball analyst Andy Katz. "It's what he cares about, it's what he lives for, it's all he thinks about as a guy that's going to be a real veteran leading voice on this team."

Oweh, who spent two seasons at Oklahoma, was one of the Big 12's best defenders last season while also improving offensively. Pope dubbed Oweh one of the "top five-to-10 best perimeter" defenders around.

Like Oweh, Garrison also played in the Big 12. And in Oklahoma. Just at Oklahoma State instead of its Bedlam Rivalry partner. A former McDonald's All-American, Garrison's blocks-per-game figure ranked fifth in the conference, while his 66 total blocks were the fifth-most ever by an OSU freshman.

"You think about Brandon Garrison," Pope told Katz, "that dude is going to have a massive impact."

Evan Miyakawa believes that could come to pass for all four next season. A basketball statistician, Miyakawa owns and operates an analytics website, One stat the sites uses is Bayesian Performance Rating, also known by its acronym, BPR. The site describes BPR as "a measure of a player's overall value to a team when he is on the floor." Defensive BPR is one component of that, as it reflects the defensive value a player provides when he's on the court.

And on paper, the Wildcats now possess some of the best.

"The projected Defensive BPR (Bayesian Projection Rating) for these players would have placed all four (of) them as top 20 defenders in the SEC last year,” Miyakawa wrote on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, on April 30. “Kentucky hasn’t had more than 2 players in the top 20 of the SEC Defensive BPR since 2018-19, a year the team was a top 5 defense nationally.”

Considered an offensive savant who, with assistant coach Cody Fueger, ran innovative schemes and dialed up creative plays at BYU, Pope admits his hard turn toward defense in building his first team might come as a surprise to outsiders.

"We're trying to keep people on their toes," Pope told Katz. "I'm very much an offensive-minded coach that cares deeply about defense. That's probably the way I would describe myself."

Or put another way, Pope's actions have spoken louder than his (scant) words about defense in his first official appearance as Kentucky's newest leader.

Reach Kentucky men’s basketball and football reporter Ryan Black at and follow him on X at @RyanABlack.

This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Kentucky basketball roster, first under Mark Pope, built on defense