Although the folks in Lexington would want you to believe otherwise, the Kentucky basketball program hasn't always sat atop the college basketball world. In the midst of countless high points over the last 80 or so years, the school has also had their lulls in success, including most recently, the four year window prior to John Calipari's arrival on campus. Then, in Coach Cal's first year, seemingly overnight, Kentucky had returned to their place among the blue bloods of college basketball. But it's not just John Calipari who deserves the credit.

Coming to Kentucky in the fall of 2009 was a quartet of five-star freshman comprised Calipari's first recruiting class at the school. John Wall, Eric Bledsoe, DeMarcus Cousins and Daniel Orton, along with sophomore Darius Miller and junior Patrick Patterson, turned the Kentucky Wildcats into the most dominant team in the country during the 2009-10 regular season, and reignited a spark that had gone out completely in the Billy Gillespie era.

According to new Kentucky head coach — and member of the 1996 Kentucky Wildcats team that won the National Championship — Mark Pope, it was this group that changed the trajectory of the program. And Pope was able to say this to John Wall himself.

“You think about the weight of John and his legacy here and what he means to this program,” Pope said on John Wall's Point Game Podcast. I don’t need to tell you guys, but Kentucky was not at it’s finest moment when you and Eric (Bledsoe), and DeMarcus rolled in here. You guys fixed it, like you guys fixed it in one season with Coach Calipari, so that means a lot and that’s always going to mean a lot here at Kentucky and all of us being together is kind of what separates Kentucky from everywhere else.”

That John Wall-led group laid the foundation for what was to come over the next decade and a half at Kentucky. John Calipari built his teams largely around talented freshmen who would go on to play in the NBA, and that includes each of the four players mentioned above. John Wall (1st overall pick), DeMarcus Cousins (5th), and Patrick Patterson (14th) were all lottery picks in the 2010 NBA Draft, while Eric Bledsoe (18th) and Daniel Orton (29th) were also 1st round picks.

Former Kentucky basketball player and new head coach Mark Pope was animated during his announcement at Rupp Arena in Lexington Ky. on April 14, 2024.
© Sam Upshaw Jr./Courier Journal / USA TODAY NETWORK

In Lexington, there's Hope in Pope 

On the podcast, John Wall said that the team's goal that season was “to bring basketball back to life,” in Lexington, and now Mark Pope faces a similar challenge. The last few years have not been kind to Coach Cal and the Wildcats. The last time Kentucky made it out of the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament was back in 2019, when the Wildcats made the Elite Eight as a #2 seed before eventually falling to SEC rival Auburn.

Mark Pope has his work cut out for him, and the turnaround may not happen overnight like it did for John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and co. fifteen years ago. But Pope has done a tremendous job using the transfer portal to build this team that is once again looking to return to their spot atop the college basketball world.