eam that won the 1996 NCAA tournament led by Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino, and even as he transitions from former player to current coach, he said he considers himself “a member” of Big Blue Nation as a Kentucky diehard.

Pope received a five-year contract through 2029 that averages $5.5 million per season after going 110-52 in five seasons as BYU’s head coach with two NCAA tournament appearances by the Cougars in his tenure.

This week, he held his first news conference since being introduced in April, and at one point he glanced left at a blue-tinted wall of championship coaches including Calipari, Pitino, Adolph Rupp — yet another Naismith Memorial Hall of Famer — along with Joe B. Hall and Tubby Smith while noting the tradition they’ve continued.

It’s one he aims to maintain his way, which is no small matter in an era dominated by the portal as well as name, image and likeness endorsements.

“One of the things that you learn really early on, and I’ve had great mentors in this game, is you just have to coach you,” said Pope, who since being hired has talked with Calipari, who left the Wildcats for Arkansas, another Southeastern Conference program. “I have to be me. I can’t be Coach Pitino, you know? I can’t be Tubby. I can’t be Cal. It would be disingenuous, and my guys wouldn’t believe if I actually tried to take on that persona.”

Coaching changes generally require taking the seasoned route to replenish the roster, and Pope definitely had no other choice to fill the canyon-sized hole that followed Calipari’s stunning departure to join the Razorbacks in early April. Dynamic guards Reed Shepperd and Rob Dillingham and forward Justin Edwards entered the NBA draft pool after one season as expected, with Shepperd selected third and Dillingham taken eighth in the first round Wednesday night in Brooklyn, New York.

Many others hit the transfer portal, with starting point guard D.J. Wagner, reserve forward Adou Thiero and 7-footer Zvonimir Ivišić joining Calipari at Arkansas. Highly rated recruits such as forward Karter Knox and guard Boogie Fland also followed the coach to Fayetteville.

Pope has restocked with six fifth-year players and one senior, one junior and one sophomore. The veteran transfers alone have combined for 845 collegiate contests and nearly 8,000 points, according to program releases, with Lamont Butler (San Diego State) and 7-footer Amari Williams (Drexel) honored as the top defenders in their former leagues. The freshman class includes Travis Perry, Kentucky prep basketball’s career scoring leader, and in-state deep threat Trent Noah.

As they continue learning each other and Pope’s system, early impressions have encouraged the coaching staff.

“Sometimes you get veteran players and they’re less malleable and less coachable, they kind of have done what they’ve done and they do what they do, and they’re less responsive,” Pope said of the first six workouts. “The thing that’s surprised me is that these guys have been incredibly willing to just rely on any instruction and really go with it.

“It’s really, really wonderful to see these veteran guys and how excited they are to grow and learn, and how willing they are to try.”

Work remains, and the transition with such a massive overhaul would suggest some level of grace is in order. On the other hand, expectations are higher at Kentucky, and there’s a clear urgency among the fan base for the Wildcats to return to national contention after recent early exits from the NCAA tournament that revealed their inexperience.

Experience is not something lacking with this group, and Pope hopes his veterans he has recruited take that to another level at a school they once aspired to beat.

“They’ve got to be the best players in the country,” Pope said, “and they’ve got to want to take on the most amount of pressure and scrutiny of any players in the country, and they have the highest standard of any program. Finding those pieces is different. It’s kind of a nice mix.”

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