Lexington is teeming with emotions on Friday, ranging from outrage to tentative optimism, following the hiring of new Kentucky basketball head coach Mark Pope. Regardless of how one feels about the former Wildcats captain and BYU leader, they were probably surprised to see that athletic director Mitch Barnhart did not bring in a bigger name.

Despite a dearth of recent NCAA Tournament success, Kentucky has long been considered among the dream destinations in the sport. The excruciating pressure that comes with the job never used to obscure the prestige and pride that brightly emanates from Rupp Arena. But much has changed, both at the program and in the landscape of college basketball.

For the many members of Big Blue Nation who are cursing out Barnhart for not targeting two-time national champion and current Chicago Bulls HC Billy Donovan, the latest news is likely going to sting.

“Despite earlier reports to the contrary, I’m now told Kentucky did make contact with Billy Donovan — unclear if it was directly or through his representatives — this week and he decided not to pursue the UK opening,” Kyle Tucker of The Athletic reported.

It might be time for fans to accept this new reality. The Wildcats do not carry the same influence or wide-ranging appeal they did in the past. Perhaps no program does in this complex NIL world.

Whatever the reason may be, the Florida Gators legend and former Kentucky basketball assistant is apparently prepared to roll the dice after another underwhelming season in the NBA rather than return to what was unanimously considered one of the hubs of college athletics not that long ago.

Mark Pope is not a flashy name, but can he get the job done?

Brigham Young Cougars head coach Mark Pope watches his team play the Iowa State Cyclones at James H. Hilton Coliseum.
Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

The biggest knock on new Arkansas Razorbacks head coach John Calipari was that he was struggling to adapt in this new era. Early exits in March Madness were becoming the norm, as unknown schools used Kentucky for their own personal get-famous-quick scheme.

High-end recruits were drawing hype and earning Calipari and the Wildcats copious attention at the NBA Draft, but the program is no longer striking the same amount of fear into fans during the actual college basketball season. Superior talent is not compensating for inexperience.

So, Calipari took the heat from an impatient fan base. His Hall of Fame credentials have now exited the Bluegrass State, leaving big shoes to fill. Many fans believed a fresh start was needed for both parties, but they also thought the next coach would be a proven winner like Billy Donovan.

Mark Pope does not have an NCAA Tournament win on his resume, the exact thing Big Blue Nation has been griping about in the first place. The irony is not lost on rival fan bases, who are presently celebrating the downfall of Kentucky basketball. But what if this former Kentucky fan favorite makes them eat their words?

Maybe, just maybe Mitch Barnhart has secured the perfect guy to lead the Wildcats for the next decade-plus.

Mark Pope can bring Kentucky basketball back to their roots

Pope served as the captain of the 1995-96 Kentucky team that Rick Pitino guided to the national championship. He joined the team a couple years earlier after transferring from Washington and ingratiated himself to the community by being a vitally important role player and locker room leader.

Pope has displayed similar resilience during his coaching career. He helped BYU extend their decades' long streak of consecutive winning campaigns and excelled in his first year in the unforgiving Big 12 Conference in 2023-24. The Cougars' victories over Kansas, Iowa State and Baylor were overshadowed by an upset loss to bid-stealer Duquesne in the first round of the Tournament.

Regular season consistency is not going to satisfy Lexington. Results in March will continue to define the Wildcats and the legacy of their new head coach. What fans should appreciate right away, however, is the profound respect Pope has for this legendary basketball tradition. This man is not an outsider. He bleeds blue.

Mark Pope has the knowledge and hopefully the resources to recreate a palpable buzz around the team. People can get jaded after seeing a revolving door of freshman sensations over the last 15 years. John Calipari perfected the one-and-done philosophy for a long time, but perhaps Pope can find a new way to succeed in Kentucky.

Connecting to the passion of these rabid fans is an underrated aspect of the job, and there might be no one else who could do that better than the new man in charge. That might even include Billy Donovan.