Mark Pope might be persona non-grata at Kentucky right now, during a week in which coveted grad transfer Matt Haarms chose Pope’s BYU squad over Kentucky. But it doesn’t change the fact that long before Pope was a college head coach recruiting against the Wildcats, he was in fact a former Kentucky Wildcat himself. Pope transferred to the school in 1993 after two years at Washington, sat out a season and played two more in Lexington, becoming a key cog on the Wildcats’ 1996 title team.
That title team of course will go down as one of the greatest in college basketball history, a juggernaut that went 34-2 (one of those losses coming to John Calipari’s UMass team) won it’s games by an average of 24 points and eventually put nine different players in the NBA. One of those players was Pope, who spent parts of eight seasons in the league.
And prior to getting into a recruiting war with the Wildcats, Pope joined KSR’s Aaron Torres Sports Podcast earlier this week, to discuss his time at Kentucky, as well as everything that has happened since.
And when it came to that 1996 team, Pope didn’t mince words: They were a monster.
“When he [Rick Pitino] had his best teams, his teams were so deep,” Pope said. “Our second unit of five guys… and I say that not trying to be arrogant but just factually, but you roll out our second five unit and they probably have a chance to get to the Final Four also that year. We had nine guys that year that went on to play in the NBA, so in your second five you had four NBA players.”
As Pope stated it isn’t being arrogant but instead factual that the ’96 group will go down as one of the best collections of talent in college hoops history. Of those nine players who made it to the NBA, Antoine Walker became an All-Star, with six players (Walker, Tony Delk, Walter McCarty, Ron Mercer, Derek Anderson and Nazr Mohammed) all becoming first round picks either in 1996 or the years that followed.
In addition to the sheer dominance of that team, Pope talked quite a bit about his other memories at Kentucky. He was the first to admit how lucky he was, experiencing the lows of college basketball – where his coach was fired after two years at Washington – and the highs of playing on the biggest stage in college hoops and winning it all.
It is a moment in time that Pope, to this day doesn’t take for granted.
“Had I just gone straight to Kentucky, I would’ve just thought that was normal,” Pope told Torres. “But having experienced what I did it Washington, there wasn’t a second, there wasn’t a moment at the University of Kentucky where I thought any of that was normal. I knew how extraordinary it was.”
“I loved my redshirt my redshirt year for a bunch of reasons. One of those reasons was that I got to spend an extra year at Kentucky, and any year you get to spend there is a gift. If I could have had two redshirt years I would have taken them. But for me also, the fervor around that program, the noise around it is just so fantastic. There is something beautiful about being able to be there first-hand, take in everything and like, wrap your arms around it before you’re asked to get on the court and perform at a high level.”
To listen to Pope’s entire interview with Torres, as well as Aaron’s recent interviews with Davion Mintz, Immanuel Quickley and others, click here.