UK Men's Basketball

Genius or idiot? Ex-Cat wonders which he is as new season begins

Mark Pope led his Utah Valley team to the semifinals of the College Basketball Invitational last season.
Mark Pope led his Utah Valley team to the semifinals of the College Basketball Invitational last season. AP

When it comes to scheduling, former Kentucky player Mark Pope has a flair for the dramatic. As the third-year coach, he has his Utah Valley team opening this season at UK on Friday night and then playing at Duke on Saturday night.

“We went back and forth trying to figure out whether this was true genius or whether this was the dumbest plan in the world,” Pope said last week. “And we’re still holding that debate.

“People say this will be the toughest 24 hours. It could be the dumbest 24 hours.”

Actually, no matter what happens in the games, Utah Valley figures to benefit from what’s been dubbed “the toughest 24 hours in college basketball history.” There’s great promotional value in playing arguably the sport’s two greatest programs on back-to-back nights. (If only Pope had thought of making it a doubleheader on the same night!)

“The fact that ESPN put it on ‘SportsCenter’ five months ago, then all the follow-up media has been really good for us,” Pope said. “It’s an important part of what we’re doing right now to build a program.”

The attention-getting ploy, which surely marketing major and tweet-meister John Calipari appreciates, inspired about 55 donors to the Utah Valley program into making the trip to watch the Wolverines play at Kentucky and Duke. It’s all part of Pope’s dream of putting Utah Valley in a more prominent place on the college basketball map.

“I want my team to go see greatness,” he said. “I want my administration to go see greatness. I want our boosters to go see greatness. So we’re going to see it in a massive dose in a very short span of time. Because I think it’s hard to get somewhere if you don’t know where you’re trying to go.”

In a similar vein, Utah Valley opened last season at Gonzaga. But, of course, returning to his alma mater makes Friday’s season-opening game extra special.

“I love that place,” Pope said of UK and Rupp Arena. “There’s so many ways that shaped me. … I think it’s the greatest college basketball program in America, and any time you get to walk into that gym, it’s an honor, right?”

I want my team to go see greatness. I want my administration to go see greatness. I want our boosters to go see greatness. So we’re going to see it in a massive dose in a very short span of time. Because I think it’s hard to get somewhere if you don’t know where you’re trying to go.

Mark Pope, explaining why he scheduled Kentucky and Duke on back-to-back nights

Of course, Pope played on UK’s 1996 national championship team, the program’s first title in 18 years.

“Way too long,” Pope said. “And I think we all felt like this was something we had to deliver.”

That championship team had two epic games against a UMass team coached by Calipari. Marcus Camby led UMass to an early-season victory over UK. The Cats won the all-important rematch in the Final Four.

“We hated — and I’m talking with a passion — John Calipari, right?” Pope said.

Pope also disliked Camby. Now, he marvels at how time can transform competitors into comrades who shared memorable experiences.

pope uk
Mark Pope averaged 7.9 points and 5.7 rebounds per game in two seasons at Kentucky after he transferred from Washington. Janet Worne Herald-Leader

Pope is among those who grieve for how his UK coach, Rick Pitino, lost his job as Louisville coach in the wake of an ongoing FBI investigation of college basketball.

“I really don’t know much about it,” Pope said. “All I know with ‘Coach P’ is just my relationship with him. And I’ll love him till the day I die. You don’t have that many people you meet in life that can actually kind of really mutate your DNA to make you a different person from your core. But he did that for me. . . .

“I’m really sad that ‘Coach P’ isn’t coaching right now.”

Pope inherited a Utah Valley program that had never won a game in a national postseason tournament. The Wolverines advanced to the semifinals of the College Basketball Invitational last spring.

Utah Valley’s final Ratings Percentage Index of 180 was better than two Southeastern Conference teams (LSU at No. 195 and Missouri at No. 253) and in roughly the same neighborhood as Mississippi State (No. 151) and Texas (No. 156).

“We’re trying to break into that group of teams that’s really competing to get in the NCAA Tournament,” Pope said.

Although the team lost point guard Hayden Schenck to a torn patella tendon, that quest will continue in Rupp Arena on Friday.

“I’m pretty greedy,” Pope said. “I don’t just want to win a bunch of games quietly. I want to win a bunch of games and bring attention to the university and the program.”

‘Needed a partner’

Going into this season, the distinction of most inexperienced college basketball team belongs to The Citadel. Its team of 2007-08 averaged 0.27 seasons of college experience per player. That’s the lowest such average in the 11 seasons number cruncher Ken Pomeroy has tried to measure experience.

Kentucky will threaten that “record” this season.

A search for perspective led to a call to Ed Conroy, who coached The Citadel in the 2007-08 season.

Conroy, now an assistant at Minnesota, said his plan was to build The Citadel program with a roster that included 13 freshmen, take lumps in the first season and eventually reap success.

Before the season, Conroy bubbled with optimism. “I’m about as fired up as I’ve ever been for a season …,” he said at this time 10 years ago. “I think it could be a heck of a fun year.”

Then The Citadel lost 103-42 at South Carolina in the first week.

Kentucky basketball’s Sacha Killeya-Jones and Nick Richards say the team is improving but still needs to get better after Friday’s 106-63 win over Centre College.

“I won’t forget that any time soon,” Conroy said last week. “At that point, you start questioning: is this really the right thing. … In rocky moments, they lose confidence, and you can’t get them back. That was always in the forefront of my mind.”

Along the way to a 1-19 conference record, Conroy tried to balance a coach’s customary tough love with compassion.

“They really needed a partner in the whole thing as opposed to someone just pushing them all the time,” he said.

One shining moment came as The Citadel team boarded a bus for the 90-minute ride home after the 61-point loss at South Carolina. A player, Zach Urbanus, asked Conroy a question.

“We play these guys every year?” the player wanted to know.

Conroy saw a desire for revenge in the question. “There was a competitive part to them,” he said of his players. “He wanted to know what the future schedule looked like. That’s the kind of reaction I wanted.”

Besides adjusting to college life and a higher level of competition, The Citadel players had the additional burden of getting accustomed to military life. Conroy recalled thinking after the 61-point loss that he’d have to tell the players they had to report to formation early the next morning.

“And no one at the formation is going to feel sorry for them,” he said. “Not one bit. Probably getting yelled at and hustled off to breakfast at 6:30.”

To lighten the mood, the coach called on his cousin, the late Pat Conroy, a best-selling author who wrote about his playing days at The Citadel in a book titled “My Losing Season.” “I told him that didn’t help me a lot in my recruiting,” Ed Conroy said with a chuckle.

“He brought a lot of joy,” Ed Conroy said of his cousin’s visits. “He loved being around the team. So I made sure he kind of adopted that group.”

Some of his former teammates accompanied Pat Conroy on these visits. These older men served as surrogate veterans for the freshmen.

After a 6-24 record in 2007-08, The Citadel had a 20-13 record the following season and Ed Conroy was named Southern Conference Coach of the Year.

Of course, The Citadel is not Kentucky. But Ed Conroy suggested that UK players might face some of the same mental challenges his players faced.

“I think that’s where Coach (John Calipari) does a phenomenal job year in and year out,” Conroy said.

Rupp Awe-rena

Former Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan is now retired and living in California. During a recent telephone conversation, he recalled participating in a bit of basketball history.

In its first game in Rupp Arena (Nov. 27, 1976), Kentucky played Wisconsin. Ryan was an assistant coach for the Badgers. As he sat on the bench before the game, he noticed that Adolph Rupp was seated about 20 feet away in the front row.

“I got goose bumps,” said Ryan, who described himself as a basketball fanatic.

The game was also the debut of new Wisconsin coach Bill Cofield. Ryan tried to relax the new coach with humor.

“I said to the head coach, ‘We’re in trouble,’” Ryan said. When Cofield asked why the Badgers were in trouble, Ryan said he saw the referees enter Rupp Arena. “They had Kentucky letter jackets on,” Ryan recalled saying, laughing at the memory of a 40-year-old joke.

“The first play, the ball goes out of bounds in front of our bench. The ref pointed Kentucky’s way and said, ‘Our ball.’”

More exhibitions?

The NCAA allowing a third exhibition this preseason (as a fund-raiser for charity) prompted John Calipari to revive one of his ideas. College teams should have an exhibition schedule like NBA teams.

Of course, this would benefit freshman-dependent teams like Kentucky. But would college basketball benefit?

The Drake Group thinks players should devote more time to academic pursuits, not to sports. Here’s how its president, David Ridpath, reacted to Calipari’s suggestion of an exhibition season.

“Interesting,” he said in an email. “Our official stance is to not expand seasons, and we also endorse one-semester sports. In short, more exhibitions could be OK as long as it doesn’t add more games to the season. Meaning less regular-season games. I doubt Cal would go for that!”

Happy birthday

To Chuck Verderber. He turned 58 on Friday. … To Doron Lamb. He turns 26 on Monday. … To Jonny David. He turns 21 on Tuesday. … To former UK Coach Billy Gillispie. He turns 58 on Tuesday.

Jerry Tipton: 859-231-3227, @JerryTipton

Season opener

Utah Valley at Kentucky

7 p.m. Friday (SEC)

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader