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Mark Pope on ’96 Kentucky team: “Our second unit had a chance to get to the Final Four”

Photo via BYU Athletics

Photo via BYU Athletics

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.”

He continued.

“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.

Article written by Aaron Torres

Aaron Torres is covering football and basketball for KSR this season after four years at Fox Sports. Follow him on Twitter @Aaron_Torres, Facebook or e-mail at [email protected] He is also the author of the only book written on the Calipari era, “One and Fun: A Behind the Scenes Look at John Calipari and the 2010 Kentucky Wildcats.”

8 Comments for Mark Pope on ’96 Kentucky team: “Our second unit had a chance to get to the Final Four”

  1. Not Dan Issel
    7:13 pm April 24, 2020 Permalink

    Without a doubt, one of the greatest college basketball teams every assembled. And, need I say, the greatest Kentucky basketball team every assembled? What a collection of talent!! And, a coach who understood what he had and used their collective talents to the greatest extent for the benefit of the team. Regardless of how you feel about Pitino (and I understand your feelings), he nonetheless was the right coach at the right time for this group of players. My love for UK basketball began with Coach Rupp in 1960, and has endured ever since. A lot of great basketball during that time, and a lot of great players and coaches. But, the 1996 team remains the “ultimate” UK basketball team.

    • tdub
      8:20 pm April 24, 2020 Permalink

      Yep, that team was definitely special.

  2. terwilliger
    7:32 pm April 24, 2020 Permalink

    Reading Pope’s words about what it means to be a Wildcat makes me sad because we have very few players anymore that feel that way about the program. It’s all about getting to the league as fast as possible. Mark Pope truly loved being a Kentucky Wildcat and embraced it to the fullest. His #1 goal, like so many guys back then, was winning a national championship.

    • tdub
      8:20 pm April 24, 2020 Permalink


    • UKFaninCO
      9:05 am April 25, 2020 Permalink


    • BlueSteel
      9:57 pm April 24, 2020 Permalink

      I understand your sentiment but that was 24 years ago… A lot has changed since then and I am very glad we have changed with the times lest we be left in the dust!!

  3. bigblue98
    9:10 pm April 24, 2020 Permalink

    Agreed – that was as dominant a team as there has ever been at UK. They at times annihilated opponents and could absolutely smother you with the press. They lost early to an outstanding team in UMASS and I will always be convinced Pitino threw the SEC Tournament to get them focused for the bigger prize.

  4. RexRox
    11:07 pm April 24, 2020 Permalink

    Mark Pope will never be “persona non-grata at Kentucky”!