It's been nearly two months since John Calipari, the long-time head coach of the University of Kentucky basketball team, shockingly announced he'd be leaving the Wildcats to take on the head coaching job at SEC rival Arkansas. And even with as much time that has passed, it still feels a bit surreal that Coach Cal, who revitalized the Kentucky basketball program immediately upon his arrival, will no longer be coaching in Lexington.

Taking his place is a man who is very familiar with life in Lexington. Former BYU coach Mark Pope played two years of college ball at Kentucky. He was a reserve on the Wildcats' 1996 championship team, averaging 7.6 points and 5.2 rebounds in just over 20 minutes per game that season. Now, Pope is tasked with doing what he did at Kentucky nearly three decades ago, and something John Calipari last did in 2012… bringing a National Championship to Kentucky.

If you thought there was going to be ill will between the two head coaches, that's not the case. Pope was stated how grateful he was for the work that Calipari did while at Kentucky, and recently, while at the SEC Spring Meetings in Destin, Florida, Calipari spoke highly of his successor as well.

“I thought it was a terrific hire,” Calipari said on Wednesday, per Barkley Truax of On3. “Mark and I have spent time together. He’s a good man. He and I talked on the Friday morning when I was at the Final Four. He couldn’t have been more — you know, he’s a former player. Proud of what Kentucky was doing. Didn’t know he would be the coach at that point, but I think it’s a terrific hire.”

Based on recent track record, not to mention Mark Pope's affiliation with the school, John Calipari isn't wrong. Since taking over at BYU ahead of the 2019-20 season, Pope's winning percentage (.679) is a smidge higher than Calipari's has been (.668) in the same time period while at Kentucky. And based on how well Mark Pope has revamped Kentucky's roster after losing multiple players to the NBA Draft (Rob Dillingham, Reed Sheppard, Antonio Reeves and Justin Edwards) and even more to the transfer portal (Adou Thiero, DJ Wagner, Zvonimir Ivisic, Aaron Bradshaw, and Ugonna Onyenso), there's plenty of reason for hope from Big Blue Nation.

Mark Pope arrives at the University of Kentucky

Year 1 of the Mark Pope Era at Kentucky

As expected, John Calipari's arrival at Arkansas prompted a sudden rise for the Razorbacks in the transfer portal rankings for the 2024-25 season. The Razorbacks are number one on that list, according to 247Sports, but Kentucky is not far behind, in 5th.

In short time, Mark Pope managed to put together an impressive list of incoming transfers, including a trio of Big 12 standouts in Otega Oweh, Kerr Kriisa, and Brandon Garrison, CAA Defensive Player of the Year and 1st Team All-CAA performer Amari Williams, former Wake Forest standout Andrew Carr, Dayton Flyers sharp-shooter Koby Brea, and Lamont Butler, a three-year starter from San Diego State who hit one of the biggest shots in NCAA Tournament history in the 2023 Final Four.

Kentucky is only 39th in recruiting, with a pair of Kentucky natives (Travis Perry and Trent Noah) rounding out the class, after a trio of highly touted recruits (Boogie Fland, Karter Knox, and Billy Richmond) all followed Coach Cal to Fayetteville. But even with the lack of first-year talent on the roster, it's clear that Mark Pope is already finding his footing in a city he once called home.