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Mark Pope introduced as Kentucky's coach, affirms expectation that 'We are here to win banners'

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LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) -- One of the last players to exit a bus full of Kentucky greats on the Rupp Arena floor, Mark Pope held the 1996 NCAA championship trophy aloft and basked in the cheers during his introduction as the Wildcats' new men's basketball coach.

Pope then ratcheted up the energy in the packed arena, making clear his expectations are as high as the fans welcoming him to the most challenging chapter of his coaching career.

"Every coach in America at every other job in America stands up at the press conference and they try and moderate expectations," Pope said Sunday. "We don't do that here in Kentucky. When (athletic director) Mitch (Barnhart) called me and talked to me about being the head coach here at Kentucky, I understand the assignment. We are here to win banners."

Pope's introduction came two days after Kentucky hired him to replace John Calipari, a Hall of Fame coach who was hired by Arkansas on Wednesday after 15 years highlighted by winning the 2012 national championship. The 51-year-old Pope returned home after going 110-52 in five seasons at BYU with two NCAA Tournament appearances, including this spring, and found Rupp Arena just as he left it -- loud and packed, even late on a Sunday afternoon in April.

The former Wildcats co-captain faces huge expectations guiding a program that had recently flamed out early in the NCAA Tournament and hasn't reached the Final Four since 2015. Pressure-filled for sure, but nothing new to Pope after making two free throws in the final minute against Syracuse to help Kentucky clinch that sixth national title on a powerhouse 34-2 squad labeled "The Untouchables" by demanding then-coach Rick Pitino.

"I literally was walking (to the line) and I promise you that the only thought that came into my mind was if I don't make this, they are going to kill me," he said. "And who wouldn't want that? That's why we're here, guys. That's what we do."

Pope faces numerous tasks taking over Kentucky, starting with building a roster that has already lost two players to the NBA draft with other decisions looming. He seemed eager to recruit in-state players -- pointing to ex-teammate Richie Farmer in the crowd and calling out Travis Perry, a Kentucky signee who attended the ceremony a month after leading Lyon County High School to the Sweet 16 state title. Pope was also very enthusiastic about mining the transfer portal for talent along with taking on the challenges posed by name, image and likeness (NIL) endorsement options that recruits seek.

The challenge that juiced Pope the most was maintaining Kentucky's "gold standard" of excellence from winning eight national championships.

Several trophies from that 1995-96 season were displayed on a table next to the podium, offering reminders of what Pope helped achieve as a player and the bar he must meet as coach. Fans cheered every time a highlight from that season with Pope were shown on video screens, providing the feel of a pep rally and home game rolled into one.

Then from the white-and-blue bus came the parade of Kentucky players, who believe Kentucky found the right man in Pope even after talking with several higher-profile candidates.

"I was just as surprised as everyone else initially," said former Wildcat Winston Bennett, who coached Pope as an assistant under Pitino. "But once (Pope's name) came across, I was like, who better to fit the task than Mark? I was blessed to be a part of coach Pitino's staff, so I know his work ethic. I know his passion at the University of Kentucky and what it's done for his life. There's no one better for this job.

"I knew once his name come up, if they interviewed him, he was going to get the job. That's how good he is."

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