One detail of the Calipari era especially irked UK basketball fans. Will Mark Pope fix it?

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Perhaps the most enduring complaint during John Calipari’s tenure as the men’s basketball coach at Kentucky — among a large and vocal segment of UK fans, at least — was that supporters of the program had to learn all those new names and faces every year.

For a fan base that prides itself on its knowledge of all things Wildcats and traditionally found joy in watching a player evolve from freshman to senior, the Calipari era was a shock to the system.

Starting in year one, with four one-and-done NBA draft picks — for a program that had zero such players, by the modern definition, before Calipari — the trend continued all the way to the 15th and final season.

“They leave before we even get to know them,” was a common lament shared by many. The complaints weren’t quite so loud in the beginning — with all that winning that Calipari delivered as he quickly restored the program to national prominence — but the grumbles were there even then.

As the winning wore off and the Final Four banners stopped flowing into Rupp Arena, the objections grew. And over the past few years, apathy set in, with some longtime fans of UK basketball tuning out altogether, tired of the revolving door of Cats with little to show for the turnover.

Last offseason, all 11 of Calipari’s players had remaining eligibility. Eight left the program, with four transferring to other schools and two more going undrafted. The returnees were Antonio Reeves, who took a long look at other options before rejoining the team, and Adou Thiero and Ugonna Onyenso, who were 10th and 11th, respectively, in minutes played as freshmen.

This offseason might have been just as bad, if Calipari had stuck around. Ten of his players were underclassmen, but it’s unlikely he would have returned more than three or possibly four, especially with six high school recruits on the way into town.

It was long assumed that whenever Calipari left Kentucky — and he bolted for Arkansas this offseason after 15 years on the job — a certain level of roster continuity would be restored to the UK basketball program. The recent emergence of the transfer portal — combined with the offseason process of looking around for more lucrative NIL opportunities — has cast some doubt over the ability to hold the core of a team together from year to year.

How successful will new Kentucky coach Mark Pope be in a pursuit of that goal?

Pope, who transferred to UK as a player in 1993 and played two seasons with the Wildcats, hit the right notes at his Rupp Arena introduction last month, promising the frenzied crowd that he would still pursue McDonald’s All-Americans while clearly reading the room before he entered it.

“Those guys that fit here sometimes will be one-and-done burger boys, for sure,” he said. “And sometimes they will be guys that come here and play four years and grow in your hearts and minds and become Kentucky legends.”

College basketball might be past the point of UK fans getting to enjoy the totality of its fairly recent tradition: players like Tony Delk and Walter McCarty as career Kentucky seniors on a national title team, or Jeff Sheppard leading the Cats to a championship in his fifth year on campus, or Tubby Smith-era stars such as Tayshaun Prince, Keith Bogans, Gerald Fitch and Chuck Hayes sticking around for four years.

But some of those stories are still possible. “Roster continuity” doesn’t have to be a thing of the past.

“In this era, it’s always going to be difficult. The whole recruiting landscape, obviously, has changed,” 247Sports national analyst Travis Branham told the Herald-Leader. “But I would say for a school like Kentucky — recruiting under Pope is not going to be like recruiting under John Calipari. You’re not going to be seeing these classes of four of five five-star freshmen and McDonald’s All-Americans. I think those days — not only at Kentucky, but even at schools like Duke — are behind us. You’re seeing all these kids go in with the mindset of being one and done that aren’t one and done.”

Branham said there was only “one big surprise” nationally out of the 2023 recruiting class involving a player that no one thought was going to be one and done before the college season began. That was Reed Sheppard, who is projected as a lottery pick in this year’s NBA draft.

“Most of the other kids, we were like, ‘Yeah, all of these kids need at least two years.’ But those kids didn’t realize that,” Branham said.

The natural reaction in those cases, a lot of the time, is for such players to transfer to new schools following just one season, if their individual results didn’t match those preconceived expectations.

“And so what’s happening is, I would say, you’re going to see schools target one or two five-stars — ones that they truly believe could be one and done,” Branham said. “Or the kid is on board with being a multi-year kid. So I would say Kentucky is going to be strategizing with that in mind.”

Lyon County’s Travis Perry cuts a part of the net after defeating Harlan County in the KHSAA boys’ basketball championship game at Rupp Arena on March 23. Perry will play for Kentucky next season.
Lyon County’s Travis Perry cuts a part of the net after defeating Harlan County in the KHSAA boys’ basketball championship game at Rupp Arena on March 23. Perry will play for Kentucky next season.

Kentucky’s roster of the future

So far, Pope has brought in nine new players, building the UK roster from scratch after all 10 of Calipari’s underclassmen opted for the NBA draft or the transfer portal this offseason.

Five of those players are transfers with no remaining NCAA eligibility. The other four, however, do have years to play beyond the 2024-25 season. And they’re all projected as multi-year Wildcats, a scenario that — if it plays out — could provide a foundation of roster continuity for the start of the Pope era.

Two of those players are transfers. Former Oklahoma guard Otega Oweh has two seasons of eligibility remaining. Former Oklahoma State center Brandon Garrison has three. Oweh is not projected as an NBA draft pick next year. Garrison, a McDonald’s All-American in 2023, isn’t either, though it wouldn’t be a shock if he found his way onto 2025 draft boards.

In adding these two players, Pope and his staff managed to find instant-impact guys — both were starters in the Big 12 last season — that might actually stick around to help build the early culture of the next phase of Kentucky basketball.

The other two — high school recruits Collin Chandler and Travis Perry — are uniquely suited to be multi-year UK players. Chandler committed to Pope two-and-a-half years ago at BYU — before embarking on a two-year mission trip — and became the first commitment of the new Kentucky era when he flipped that pledge to UK less than a week after Pope took the job.

Perry, the reigning Kentucky Mr. Basketball and the state’s all-time scoring leader, attended Pope’s introductory ceremony at Rupp — where the new coach singled him out at one point, asking that the teenager stand up so he could be applauded by the UK fans — and reaffirmed his commitment to the Cats as soon as he got a chance to meet with Pope one on one.

Even if neither emerges as a star player — or anything close to it — in year one, both Chandler and Perry have already shown a loyalty to coach and school that would lead one to believe they’ll be around for a while.

“Travis Perry — he’s one that I would imagine sticks around,” Branham said. “Kentucky kid. Loves the program. Grew up a fan. And fits Pope’s system. I would imagine he’s going to have a role here and, again, just love his time wearing that Kentucky jersey.

“Collin, with the unique circumstances of his situation, I would imagine that he’s here for two or three years. He could eventually become an NBA prospect, with how talented he is, once he finds his footing. But I would imagine him being a multi-year impact player.”

Collin Chandler was set to be BYU’s highest-ranked recruit in nearly a decade before flipping to Kentucky after the Wildcats hired Mark Pope.
Collin Chandler was set to be BYU’s highest-ranked recruit in nearly a decade before flipping to Kentucky after the Wildcats hired Mark Pope.

That Pope has already put together a roster worthy of Top 25 consideration — with more additions on the way — is impressive on its own. That he’s done so while also managing to get four talented players that will be expected to stay multiple years as part of that group is a good sign for Kentucky’s future, especially as Pope tries to build his own culture, one that will be somewhat dependent on key players from previous teams returning to the program.

“They are taking the new landscape, the new culture of high school basketball and the transfer portal into account with how they’re strategizing right now,” Branham said. “So I would imagine that roster continuity is going to be more consistent under the Pope era than it has been in years’ past.”

Where Pope goes from here will be worth watching. It’s possible that any future additions to his first UK roster will be from that veteran category — North Florida’s Chaz Lanier, with one season left of eligibility, is a hot name at the moment — but landing four possible multi-year guys with real talent in his first few weeks on the job is an achievement.

And it’ll be apparent soon enough who Pope and his staff plan to pursue the hardest out of the 2025 class. The first evaluation period of the spring — when coaches can actually attend shoe-company events in person — is set for next weekend, and the days that follow should reveal the earliest top targets for Kentucky among the next group of high school seniors. Expect some of those targets to project as multi-year college players.

Whatever happens next, having Chandler and Perry in the fold should go a long way. Neither is expected to be an NBA draft pick next year. Both seem OK, from the get-go, with the idea of being long-term Wildcats, making them great examples of modern roster-building techniques.

“And that’s exactly what I’m saying in regards to how every coach is going to restructure their strategies now,” Branham said. “Because you don’t want to recruit the types of players that you know are going to be needing two years and aren’t going to be on board with it, so then they become disgruntled and leave.

“And Travis Perry doesn’t fit that bill. Because with the way his skill set is — and how smart and tough and how potent of a shooter he is — I would imagine he’s going to fit right in and have a role. He may not be a starter in year one or year two, but I would be surprised to ever see him move on. And then Collin Chandler — with the longstanding relationship between him and Pope, and, again, his fit into the system and how good he can be — I would be surprised (if he left).”

Time will tell, but — going into season one of the Pope era — it sure seems like Kentucky fans will be well-familiar with at least a handful of Wildcats by the premiere of season two.

“I don’t imagine Perry or Chandler — or any of these kids — getting too disgruntled, especially with the way Pope is going to play and coach these guys,” Branham said. “It seems like, historically, he’s had very good relationships with his players, and they enjoy playing for him.”

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