An NCAA rule that John Calipari loathed is helping Mark Pope rebuild UK basketball’s roster

It was not a surprise for a coach who was synonymous with teams built around one-and-done freshmen, but John Calipari all but loathed the “make the game older” impact that the NCAA-granted “one free COVID year” has had on men’s college basketball.

The presence of players using a fifth season of college eligibility — like, say, Oakland’s 3-point marksman Jack Gohlke — made it harder for a freshman-dominated roster such as the one Calipari constructed for Kentucky in 2023-24 to succeed.

No UK backer needs to be reminded that Gohlke rifled in 10 treys and scored 32 points last month to lead No. 14 seed Oakland to a stunning 80-76 NCAA Tournament upset of No. 3 seed Kentucky.

In what turned out to be Calipari’s final game as UK’s head coach, his team with eight scholarship freshmen was shot down by a “super senior” who had spent his previous four seasons playing for NCAA Division II Hillsdale College.

Given that history, there is a touch of irony in the extent that Mark Pope, Calipari’s successor as UK men’s basketball coach, is using super seniors to replenish a Kentucky roster that is expected to feature no returning scholarship players.

Since Calipari exited for Arkansas, Pope has gotten commitments from six players to play for UK in 2024-25. Of those six, three — Drexel transfer Amari Williams; San Diego State transfer Lamont Butler; and Wake Forest transfer Andrew Carr — will be using a fifth season of eligibility next year at Kentucky.

Carr (112 career college starts), Butler (102) and Williams (79), plus incoming Oklahoma transfer Otega Oweh (37), a junior-to-be, give UK 330 career college starts on its 2024-25 roster.

From just those four players, Kentucky will have more career starts on its roster entering next season than had all Calipari-coached UK teams but one. The 2021-22 Wildcats began that season with 367 career starts distributed among members of that team.

New Kentucky basketball coach Mark Pope is making good use of “super seniors” as he builds his first UK roster.
New Kentucky basketball coach Mark Pope is making good use of “super seniors” as he builds his first UK roster.

In the context of the almost $34 million buyout Kentucky would have owed Calipari had it fired him this offseason, there has been much commentary on how fortunate UK was that the coach found a departure route on his own that got UK off of that financial hook.

Yet it is also fortunate for Kentucky that Calipari exited at the time he did for a different reason. This coming school year is the final one in which there will be a full class of super seniors available.

The NCAA created the pool of players with a fifth season to play by granting an extra season of college eligibility to athletes who were enrolled during the 2020-21 school year. That move was done to mitigate the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the players’ college sports experiences.

Had Kentucky and Calipari parted ways just one season later, there would have been dramatically fewer players with a fifth season of eligibility available to help replenish the UK roster.

As Wildcats men’s basketball has hit what has been, by Kentucky standards, a competitive trough in recent years — 1-3 in NCAA Tournament games in the current decade; one SEC regular-season title and one SEC Tournament crown each in the past seven years — an element of the Wildcats fan base has been pleading for older UK rosters.

The rationale behind that that wish has been on display in NCAA Tournament Final Fours of recent vintage.

Of the 20 players who started in the 2024 men’s Final Four, 13 were seniors (six) or super seniors (seven).

There was a grand total of one freshman — Connecticut’s Stephon Castle — who started in this season’s Final Four.

Since Duke won the 2015 NCAA title with a starting lineup that included three one-and-done freshmen, there have been eight subsequent Final Fours (remember, COVID-19 canceled the 2020 NCAA Tournament).

So since 2016, there have been 160 players start in the Final Four. Of that 160, 107 have been juniors or above in terms of college eligibility.

Meanwhile, over the last eight NCAA tournaments, there have been only 10 freshmen among the 160 players who have started for teams in the Final Four.

As Pope and Kentucky seek to fill out the remainder of the Wildcats’ 2024-25 roster, there are at least three other super seniors — BYU’s Jaxson Robinson; Dayton’s Koby Brea; and Utah’s Deivon Smith — who have been linked to the Cats.

In the meantime, it is amazing how much the passage of a few weeks can change things.

When March began, UK had a coach making jokes on his radio show about having to play against 27-year-old men who went home at the end of practices to their wives and families with three children.

As April ends, Kentucky has a different head coach who is enthusiastically using the availability of super seniors to rebuild the Wildcats’ roster.

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