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Jamie Vaught: Former Cat Mark Pope bringing his Utah Valley team back to Kentucky to face U of L

Random notes ….

Mark Pope is coming to Louisville next week.

That’s because the former UK hoops standout is the head coach at Utah Valley University and he is taking his team for a two-game appearance in the Billy Minardi Classic.

And the Wolverines will facing Rick Pitino’s Louisville Cardinals in the second game on Wednesday evening, Dec. 23. That contest will be seen on ESPNU, beginning at 7 p.m.

Before he was hired at Utah Valley last March, Pope — who was a member of UK’s 1996 national championship team and played seven years in the NBA — served as an assistant coach at Brigham Young for four years, including three NCAA tournament appearances.

As you may remember, Pope began his coaching career at Georgia after three years in medical school at Columbia University in New York City.

Former Kentucky star Mark Pope was at medical school when he decided to enter the coaching profession. He will bring his Utah Valley team to Kentucky to face Rick Pitino and Louisville next week (Utah Vally Athletics Photo)

Former Kentucky star Mark Pope was at medical school when he decided to enter the coaching profession. He will bring his Utah Valley team to Kentucky to face Rick Pitino and Louisville next week (Utah Vally Athletics Photo)

In a 2010 interview with this columnist, Pope said he didn’t regret his decision to leave Columbia.

“People often ask about me leaving medical school. There are two reasons why I’m sure that I made the right decision,” explained Pope, a Rhodes Scholar candidate who was a 1995 Academic All-SEC player at UK, earning his degree in English in 1996. “First, it only took me a few hours at Columbia to realize that I wasn’t very smart.

“Second, I missed the game terribly. I enjoyed the challenge of medical school and the interaction with patients, but I love coaching. I literally can’t wait to get up in the morning.”

Pope told the Salt Lake Tribune last month that his coaching style will be more artistic rather than scientific.

“I want (the players) to have a nature about them and a swagger about them and a competitive spirit about them, where they just put everything they have on the floor every single night,” Pope told the Utah newspaper.

Utah Valley — projected by the Sporting News yearbook to finish in the middle of the Western Athletic Conference race (but that was before team’s most experienced returning player Zach Nelson broke his leg) — is currently 4-6.

By the way, Grand Canyon, a team Kentucky defeated 85-45 in the season opener last year, is also a member of WAC.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Dick Vitale, popularly known as Mr. College Basketball, was back at Rupp Arena last Saturday afternoon, broadcasting the Kentucky-Arizona State game for ESPN.

As usual, the 76-year-old Vitale is full of energy and enthusiasm. Asked how does he keep his broadcasting career going, he replied in a quick pre-game interview, “I love what I do. When you love what you’re doing, it’s easy to get excited.”

Dick Vitale visited American Pharoah during a recent visit to Kentucky with ESPN (Jamie Vaught Photo)

Dick Vitale visited American Pharoah during a recent visit to Kentucky with ESPN (Jamie Vaught Photo)

While in Lexington, Vitale and his wife, Lorraine, also visited a horse farm in Versailles. He got to see American Pharoah, a racehorse who captured the 2015 Triple Crown as well as the recent Breeders’ Cup Classic.

He said he was in awe of American Pharoah and had pictures taken with the legendary horse. “I met a whole bunch of horses,” he quipped. “You know the big hero around here isn’t John Calipari. It is American Pharoah, he’s No. 1.”

What about the Wildcats this season?

“I think once the kids get familiar with each other, no need to panic ,” said Vitale. “You can’t rustle up Big Blue Nation with one loss. They’ve got a lot of potential. It’s just a matter of making the shots, and they will. (Tyler) Ulis is good at shooting. (Skal) Labissiere is going to be good. Once they get it all together, it will be another outstanding year.”

College basketball’s biggest issue? “Well, you know, when you’re talking about issues, I have a problem with some of the NCAA rules…..one and done (players)….I don’t blame schools for doing it because that’s the rule. It’s good to play by the rules, but it’s not good for the game.”

* * * * * * * * * * * *

After a nice start this season, UK freshman Skal Labissiere has been struggling in recent weeks, especially on the boards.

Surprisingly, Labissiere, a five-star recruit who on Dec. 9 was projected as the No. 3 pick of the 2016 NBA mock draft, didn’t have a single rebound or point against Arizona State in 13 minutes of action. Against Illinois State, UCLA and EKU, he grabbed only two, one and four rebounds, respectively.

Should we press the panic button? Of course not. Like many freshmen, Labissiere is going through some growing pains and the 6-11, 225-pound forward has tons of potential.

He will be fine. Just give him time. Be patient.

Labissiere wasn’t made available to the media after Saturday’s game but his teammates supported him.

Junior Marcus Lee said, “I mean, that happens your freshman year. You come in with a huge head. I personally did, I know I did. It’s kind of a reality check. Then once you get the reality check and once you know that your team is behind you, you’re going to do fine.”

Added junior Derek Willis, “He (Labissiere) just needs to work through it and keep going to the gym and keep working. That’s just how you get better. Just keep working. It’s still early, and he’s a young kid who hasn’t done this much before so it’s all new to him. He’ll get it down.”

Freshman Jamal Murray said Labissiere needs to focus on rebounding.

“He just needs to fight, get in the paint and grab rebounds for us,” he said, adding that his teammate has nothing to worry about his often-smooth offensive moves.

Kentucky coach John Calipari isn’t overly concerned.

“(Labissiere) got to work through, and it’s the first time in his life,” he said. “You understand he came from Haiti. He played basketball for a year and a half and then he played church league for two years. He’s never been through any of this. This is all new to him.”

Entering Saturday afternoon’s matchup with Ohio State in Brooklyn, N.Y., Labissiere is averaging 10.6 points and 3.5 rebounds in 21.6 minutes with five Wildcat players having a higher rebounding average, including 5-9 point guard Tyler Ulis (3.8 average).

If I was a betting man, be patient and look for him to grow up and become a late-blooming college basketball star in a month or two.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

When 13th ranked Duke comes to Rupp Arena for a Sunday night date with Matthew Mitchell’s No. 8 Wildcats on SEC Network (7 p.m.) in women’s
college basketball action, the Blue Devils will bring someone from the state of Kentucky to the floor.

That someone is redshirt sophomore Rebecca Greenwell, a 6-1 guard from Owensboro Catholic High School.

And the former McDonald’s All-American is doing very well this season. Going into Thursday night’s home contest with Liberty, Greenwell is averaging team-high 32.9 minutes in hitting 13.3 points and grabbing 5.6 rebounds. (The leading scorer for Duke is 6-6 sophomore Azura Stevens with a 19.3-point average. Stevens also averages team-leading 10 rebounds.)

Greenwell is the team’s primary three-point shooter. She has made 21 of 59 shots from the downtown arc for 35.6 percent.

The Kentuckian recently was presented with the Iron Blue Devil Belt by strength and conditioning coach William Stephens. The award is given to the women’s basketball player that excels in summer workouts along with preseason conditioning. The psychology major managed to capture the award despite missing a good portion of the summer because of an illness.

Duke is 8-2 for the season, including a recent loss to No. 2 South Carolina 66-55 at Columbia.

Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor of KySportsStyle.com magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle or reach him via e-mail at KySportsStyle@gmail.com.

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