Mark Pope has been praised for his first UK basketball roster. He still has one huge need.

By pretty much all accounts, Mark Pope did about as well as could be expected during the first three weeks of his tenure as the men’s basketball coach at the University of Kentucky.

From his electric introduction at Rupp Arena to the built-from-scratch nature of putting together the Wildcats’ next roster and coaching staff, Pope has been receiving high marks from the college basketball community.

“He’s done a really good job,” 247Sports national analyst Travis Branham told the Herald-Leader. “Especially when you add in the piecing together of the staff in that same time frame. … So the fact that he’s been able to get — not just the quantity of guys — but it’s good quality. A lot of good pieces that can mesh well together.”

Starting with zero returning scholarship players from John Calipari’s 2023-24 UK roster — all 10 upperclassmen have entered the NBA draft or hit the transfer portal — and with none of the former Kentucky coach’s six incoming recruits fully committed to sticking around at the time of Pope’s introduction, the new guy was left with a major rebuilding job and not much time to do it.

Over a period of 15 days, Pope locked up commitments from two high school prospects — Collin Chandler, his top recruit at BYU; and Travis Perry, the only Calipari-era pledge to stay with UK — as well as seven transfers: West Virginia guard Kerr Kriisa, San Diego State guard Lamont Butler, Dayton guard Koby Brea, Oklahoma guard Otega Oweh, Wake Forest forward Andrew Carr, Drexel forward Amari Williams and Oklahoma State center Brandon Garrison.

The college basketball analytics website ranks that as the No. 3 transfer class in the country. 247Sports has the Cats at No. 5 nationally, as far as collective transfer rankings.

This group isn’t complete, however, and Pope still has at least one glaring need for next season.

“Now it’s just a matter, to me, of, ‘All right, we need a dynamic guard that can just make a play,’” Branham said. “You watch what Kansas went through this past season. Bill Self had to coach his butt off all year — call play after play — because they didn’t really have that dynamic guard like they’ve had in the past that can just go out there and make a play and make your life as a coach much easier.

“And, right now, if they don’t find that, it’s going to take a lot of responsibility for Pope, in terms of — when it comes to executing and calling of plays as a coach, he’s going to have to do it far more often, if he doesn’t get that guy. So you go get a dynamic guard.”

To Branham’s point, Kansas was the preseason No. 1-ranked team in college basketball, bolstered by a lineup that featured star big man transfer Hunter Dickinson, the stat-sheet-stuffing Kevin McCullar Jr., pass-first point guard Dajuan Harris Jr. and the versatile K.J. Adams Jr., but Self didn’t have that go-get-a-bucket guy. And in the end, that torpedoed the Jayhawks, who ended up losing in the second round of the NCAA Tournament and finishing 19th in the final AP poll.

The roster Pope has assembled so far has some good offensive weapons, with multiple 3-point shooting threats — as well as a surprising number of stellar defenders — but the group is missing the type of relentless scorer that Branham is speaking of.

The national recruiting expert and 247Sports’ top portal analyst brought up one name, in particular, as a possibly perfect fit to fill Kentucky’s greatest need.

“It’s been in the works for a while, but Chaz Lanier is an option,” Branham said. “And I think if you get a guy like that — that can score off the dribble, shows some flashes as a passer and a playmaker — that can unlock the rest of the potential of the team. Because, again, you have so many different tools around where you have a guy who can put pressure on the defense at any given moment. He doesn’t need a play called for him. You can just give him the ball, and he can make something happen.”

Chaz Lanier emerged as one of the most efficient offensive players in college basketball during the 2023-24 season. Jeffrey Becker/USA TODAY NETWORK
Chaz Lanier emerged as one of the most efficient offensive players in college basketball during the 2023-24 season. Jeffrey Becker/USA TODAY NETWORK

Can Kentucky get Chaz Lanier?

Lanier — a 6-foot-4, 199-pound guard — was a revelation in his fourth year at North Florida this past season. He never averaged more than 4.7 points per game over his first three years for the Ospreys — hitting double digits just six times in 72 games during that time — before breaking out in a big way.

In 2023-24, he averaged 19.7 points per game and made 106 3-pointers at a 44.0% clip. Lanier had eight games with 25 or more points and hit the 30-point mark on four occasions last season. He’s also an 86.4% career free-throw shooter and shot 51.0% from the field this past season.

Lanier is at No. 10 nationally in the 247Sports transfer portal rankings — the top available guard other than No. 1-ranked Kadary Richmond — and the widely utilized Synergy Sports service rated him as the most efficient offensive player in all of college basketball last season. (UK’s Antonio Reeves and national player of the year Zach Edey were 2-3 on that list, for context.)

The thought of Lanier as the go-to 2 in an offense with a creative point guard like Kriisa, the nation’s top 3-point threat (Brea) and other above-average shooters is quite the thought.

Kentucky will make a run at him, but so will just about every other top program with a need for more scoring punch. (And pretty much every team can always use more offense.)

Lanier, a Nashville native, was viewed as a Tennessee lean as this process began. Branham mentioned the Vols’ last big-time transfer pickup in his write-up of Lanier in the 247Sports’ portal rankings. “If you are looking for a potential ‘Dalton Knecht’ in the portal, this could very well be the guy,” he said.

Knecht, of course, earned SEC player of the year honors this past season after transferring from Tennessee following two years at Northern Colorado and two years before that in junior college. He was one of the most exciting scorers in college basketball and led the Vols to the league title.

None of this means that Lanier-to-Knoxville is a done deal.

“I would imagine that they’re going to be aggressive in their pursuit of him,” Branham said of Kentucky. “And, yes, when he went into the portal, it sounded like they were going to be fighting an uphill battle against Tennessee. But in this era, you can change a lot of minds very quickly.”

Branham mentioned UK’s seemingly quick pursuit of Garrison, a former McDonald’s All-American who was actually eating breakfast on an official visit to Arkansas on the same day that he turned down Calipari’s new school to join Pope in Lexington.

“So I would imagine that they’re going to go down swinging on a guy like Chaz Lanier,” Branham said. “And if they don’t get him, then it’s going to be interesting to see what happens with this pool of players that is in the NBA draft.”

There are several players going through the NBA draft process that also have their names in the transfer portal, and while some are effective scorers, few, if any, are rated quite as high as Lanier.

There’s Jaxson Robinson, who was BYU’s leading scorer under Pope last season. If Robinson — a 6-7 guard with one season of eligibility remaining — pulls out of the draft by the May 29 deadline, UK would be considered the favorite. He would be another impressive addition to the Wildcats’ roster, but he doesn’t really fit the role that Branham is describing here.

“He’s not necessarily that guy that you give the ball to and say, ‘Go make something happen.’ He’s a weapon out on the perimeter, not so much this dynamic, playmaking guard that they’re looking for,” he said. “So, yeah, I would say look at Chaz Lanier, see what he does. And if not … those types of players are pretty hard to find.”

If Pope can’t get one, the next option might be to find someone who could grow into that role in year two. Branham specifically mentioned UConn’s Tristen Newton, who played three years at East Carolina and did well as a starter for the Huskies’ 2023 national title team before taking it to another level this past season, leading UConn in scoring and assists (and finishing second in rebounds) as the program rolled to a second consecutive NCAA championship.

The ideal scenario would obviously be landing Lanier, and he’s the type of perfect-fit talent that could take Kentucky’s projection for Pope’s first season into the next tier.

“If you have that, and you have all these shooters and different pieces around him, it just kind of unlocks the whole team,” Branham said. “And, again, makes your life as a coach so much easier, where you’re not having to micromanage a game every single possession.

“He’s done a really good job. Now you get one or two of that type of player, and it’s really going to paint a very bright picture for what they can do next season.”

This UK basketball roster took a weird turn. ‘I’m very intrigued,’ says analytics expert.

Longtime college basketball starting guard commits to UK basketball from transfer portal

One of college basketball’s best 3-point shooters commits to UK from the transfer portal

The transfer portal closes now. Where UK basketball stands, and what’s next for Mark Pope.

Starting center from Big 12 is the latest transfer pickup for Mark Pope and UK basketball

Mark Pope gives us the plan for his first Kentucky recruit. ‘We’re really good at this.’

Former Wake Forest forward Andrew Carr, after a career season, will transfer to UK basketball