Pope hire excites former teammate Epps

Published 3:10 pm Tuesday, April 16, 2024

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Former University of Kentucky point guard Anthony Epps admits he was “very excited” when UK named Mark Pope, his former teammate on UK’s 1996 national championship team, as its new head basketball coach.


And that was before Big Blue fans filled Rupp Arena for Pope’s introductory press conference on Sunday, which included his arriving in a bus with many of his former teammates from the 1996 national title team and Pope getting off the bus carrying the 1996 national championship trophy.

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Epps was not there only because he was in Pittsburg due to a prior AAU commitment but he was with his former teammate in spirit. Epps understood it was not the high-profile hire that many UK fans initially wanted after former coach John Calipari left after 15 years to take the head job at Arkansas but the tide has quickly turned.


“I know it took a lot of guts by (UK athletics director) Mitch Barnhart a lot of guts to pull the string and hire Mark,” said Epps. “But Mark is ready for this opportunity. He’s been a head coach for nine years (at Utah Valley State and BYU), so he’s ready.”


Pope was the team captain on the 1996 national championship team and Epps’ teammate for two years after he transferred to Kentucky from Washington.


“I think hiring Mark is bringing our brotherhood (of former players) even closer than we already were. I think a lot of people have felt out of touch with the program for so long. Hiring Mark will re-energize all of us (former players),” Epps said.


Epps, currently the head boys coach at Campbellsville High School, believes UK fans will love Pope and be energized by his energy like they were at the press conference either in person or while watching on TV or online.


“Mark is just relentless. He is a hard, hard worker. He’s very smart and innovative,” Epps said. “He plays a fun style of basketball. He’s always positive. Even back when we were playing and we were down or struggled, he always was positive and brought us up even though he also hated losing.


“He was just fun to be around. He had a goofiness about him but loved everybody he came in contact with. It was like he always put everybody before him.”


Epps knows fans will appreciate Pope’s coaching fundamentals and the way he approaches the game.


“His offense is fun to watch. There is a lot of movement and a lot of 3’s. His team also always does a great job of playing defense,” Epps said.


Pope and Epps played for coach Rick Pitino at Kentucky. Epps doesn’t think Pope’s style is exactly what Pitino used.


“I think Mark has taken pieces of everybody he has been around and then put his own little twist to it,” Epps said.


The former UK point guard believes Kentucky high school coaches would attend a clinic if Pope had one to learn the X’s and O’s of what he does. However, Epps knows Pope’s love for Kentucky basketball, but that does not mean he can suddenly stock a roster with all in-state players.


“Everybody can’t be connected because Mark still has a job to do. If a coach does not have a player good enough to play at that level he might not have a lot of interaction with Mark or any Kentucky coach. It’s a business,” Epps said. “But I also know Mark will do what is best to recruit in the state if a player fits what he does in his system.


“The toughest thing to understand is that not everybody can play at Kentucky. Mark Pope loves Kentucky. Don’t doubt that. But he also has a job to do. One great thing about the transfer portal, though, is a Kentucky kid goes off somewhere else and imposes he now has a chance to still come back and play for Kentucky.”


Epps knows former teammates and other UK players are going to support Pope. He believes fans will do the same.


“BBN has to get behind Mark and show him support and give him time to build his program,” Epps said. “He’s a great guy, a really smart guy. However, he’s also a really good basketball coach who loves Kentucky and will be a tireless worker to make Kentucky special.”