Mark Pope is excited for UK basketball practice this week. Here’s his biggest challenge.

The past two months in the world of Kentucky basketball have been anything but dull.

From the surprising hire of Mark Pope as the Wildcats’ new head coach to his electric reintroduction to UK fans two days later and the sprint through a spring filled with acquisitions for his first season in charge of the program, there’s been no shortage of action off the court.

Now, finally, the time is here to actually play a little ball.

Pope, his new coaching staff, and the 2024-25 roster hit the court Monday for the first practice of the summer session, another milestone in this new era of UK basketball.

“I’m really excited,” Pope said over the weekend. “We have dug really, really deep into everything we can know about our team and about our guys and about putting this together. We need more data, right? And we need more time. It’s like time and data to — you guys are going to get tired of me talking about connective tissue, but to build the connective tissue and the special sauce of what makes teams great.

“And so I’m just grateful that we’re here right now and that we can start doing that in massive earnest. I think this team has way more potential than maybe people think. And the question is, how good can we be in tapping into it and helping all the pieces fit together with a synergy that makes our whole way bigger than the sum of our parts?”

With practice starting Monday, the team will be allowed to have four hours per week of on-court instruction for the next eight weeks, according to NCAA rules. The Wildcats who will make up Pope’s first roster — all 12 scholarship players on the 2024-25 team are newcomers — are now on campus in Lexington, with veteran center Amari Williams the last to arrive over the weekend following his graduation from Drexel University.

The only returnees from John Calipari’s final season with the Cats will be walk-ons Grant Darbyshire and Walker Horn — they’ve played a total of 16 minutes, combined, over the past two seasons — and none of the other 12 players have ever been college teammates. Only one, Jaxson Robinson, a transfer from BYU, has ever played for Pope.

The season is still about five months away, but the practice time between now and then will be precious, and Pope acknowledged Saturday that getting this team to mesh is priority number one.

“That’s going to be the biggest challenge,” he said.

Pope was speaking from the Club Blue NIL event at Alltech Arena, where he — along with most of the UK team — met with fans, took questions and talked about the upcoming season. A popular topic was the start of these summer practices.

Kentucky’s new leader — Pope has nine seasons of head coaching experience, five at BYU and four at Utah Valley — said he and his staff put this bunch together with chemistry in mind, but he acknowledged that he’d never coached a squad of entirely new teammates.

While there’s plenty of talent here, he said finding that “connective tissue” that will make all the pieces fit on the court is crucial, and these early practices will be the setting for those seeds to be planted. The Herald-Leader polled a few national college basketball analysts earlier this month — all saying that UK had a top 25-caliber roster, at the very least, while careful to project them too highly in the rankings due, in large part, to the fact that these guys have never been teammates.

“Right now, we have to learn how to play together,” Pope acknowledged. “That’s going to involve a lot of 3 on 3. Four guys on the court at the same time. Five guys on the court at the same time. So we can learn each other.”

He noted that his teams are incredibly dependent on each other with the sets they run, and that makes getting as many reps in as possible — while perfecting their timing and chemistry — a key aspect of this early stage in the offseason. Pope referred to it as “a race” to get on the same page as quickly as possible.

“So it very much is a process of getting to know each other, and that’s where we’re feeling the pressure right now,” he said. “We’ve got to expedite this process.”

University of Kentucky’s men’s basketball coach Mark Pope talks about his 2024-25 team in front of fans at an NIL event at Alltech Arena on Saturday.
University of Kentucky’s men’s basketball coach Mark Pope talks about his 2024-25 team in front of fans at an NIL event at Alltech Arena on Saturday.

Kentucky’s players are ready

During one portion of Saturday’s event, Pope shared the stage with UK announcer Tom Leach, who peppered him with questions as fans listened intently. At one point, Leach brought up the “legendary” conditioning drills during the Rick Pitino era. Pope was at Kentucky for three seasons under Pitino and a captain on his 1996 national title team.

“You said the conditioning was ‘legendary.’ I felt like the conditioning was abusive,” he said to laughs from the crowd. “But it worked. And the one thing you felt with Coach P was that you went through it and you could be on the court playing the way you play and just never fatigue.”

Pope then brought up the great scoring runs that those Pitino teams — especially the nearly perfect 1996 squad — were famous for. “I’ll never forget those great runs,” he said. “That’s the manifestation of the aggressive style of play and great conditioning. And we have the same expectation of our guys — to come out here and never fatigue.”

Pope is also expected to play with a fast tempo as Kentucky’s coach, and his offense — rated No. 14 nationally in efficiency last season — is what drew many of the talented transfers on this roster to Lexington.

The biggest endorsement for Pope’s coaching style is Robinson, the leading scorer at BYU this past season and the final (as of now) addition to this Kentucky team. Robinson heaped praise on Pope in an interview with the Herald-Leader last month. One of the most coveted transfers in the country after he pulled out of the NBA draft, Robinson immediately committed to Kentucky.

“Before anything had happened with the NBA, I already knew — if I had come back to college — this is where I’d be at,” he said Saturday. “Me and Coach Pope are super close, and that’s my guy. So I’m excited to be here.”

Another major addition to Pope’s first UK roster: Koby Brea, a four-year player at Dayton who shot a stunning 49.8% from 3-point range last season. Brea was widely viewed as the best 3-point shooter in the portal this offseason. His list of five finalists featured UK, Duke, Kansas, North Carolina and two-time reigning NCAA champion UConn — as star-studded as it gets.

He picked Kentucky, saying Saturday that he was drawn in by Pope and his coaching staff, particularly mentioning the way Pope’s offensive style — BYU was second nationally last season with 32.0 3-point attempts per contest — complements his own game.

Brea said he wanted to spend his final season in college at a place where a national title would be possible, and he was all smiles while talking about meeting with UK fans Saturday.

“It’s a dream come true, if I’m being honest,” he said. “Just to be in an environment where you get to see so much love and so much support from Big Blue Nation. And you get to see what it’s really all about — what you represent — that every time I put on that jersey, I know it’s bigger than me. It’s about all these other people. …

“Kentucky is Kentucky, man. Since I was little — I’m from New York — I’ve always dreamt about coming over here. So it was a big opportunity for me.”

One new teammate who needed no primer on UK basketball is Travis Perry, the state’s all-time leading scorer and reigning Mr. Basketball. Perry will be one of three freshmen on this team — joining fellow Kentucky native Trent Noah and former BYU recruit Collin Chandler — and he’s spent the past few weeks getting to know his new teammates. He can’t wait to get on the court.

“We’re all excited and itching to get going and get practicing and compete,” Perry said. “… It’s a dream come true. You always expect it a little bit. But until you get on the road and get up there, it’s a different feeling. I remember being — we’re having camps this week — I remember coming to camps, waiting outside the lodge trying to get autographs. And now I’m the one walking into the lodge, just to go to my room or whatever. It’s just stuff like that — it kind of puts it into perspective how blessed I am to be able to live out a dream. So it’s just really exciting.”

Lamont Butler might end up being the starting point guard on Pope’s first UK team. Or one of two starters at that position, if Kerr Kriisa is in the first five alongside him. Either way, he’s champing at the bit to get going with his new team.

Butler — a three-year starter at San Diego State with a Final Four on his résumé — has been billed by Pope as one of the best perimeter defenders in the country. He didn’t shy away from that reputation. Offensively, Butler said he looked forward to playing in Pope’s “free-flowing and fast” system and facilitating others within that style.

He also said he and Kriisa — more of a flashy, offensive-minded point guard — have already started building a bond before they get into this week’s practice sessions.

“I think we’ll be great together,” Butler said. “I’ve been hanging out with Kerr a lot since I’ve been here. I think we’re starting to gain chemistry there, and we’re just going to play beside each other and go out there and do our best.”

The Butler/Kriisa dynamic will be just one positional puzzle for Pope and his staff to solve. Chandler was a top-40 national recruit. Robinson, Brea and Otega Oweh have all been double-digit scorers from the wing. The frontcourt — with experienced forwards Ansley Almonor and Andrew Carr, plus McDonald’s All-American center Brandon Garrison alongside Williams, a 7-footer — is stacked with talent, too.

This week marks a major step in figuring out how all those pieces fit. And the relationships built over the next several weeks — on and off the court, among coaches and players — will likely go a long way toward this team finding its collective trust once the real games begin in November.

“To play at this level — and with a team so good and so great — the best teams have to be able to have players sacrifice some things,” Brea said. “And that’s something that we’re going to have to sacrifice for each other, and I feel like everybody’s gonna be totally fine with that, as long as we’re winning and achieving the goal.”

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