College Basketball
Rick Pitino accepts Mark Pope’s challenge, Kentucky vs. St. John’s series in works
College Basketball

Rick Pitino accepts Mark Pope’s challenge, Kentucky vs. St. John’s series in works

Updated Apr. 15, 2024 11:58 a.m. ET

Rick Pitino will in fact be returning to Kentucky — to lead his St. John's team into Lexington as part of a series that is in the works between the Hall of Famer and new Wildcats head coach Mark Pope. 

Pope, a captain for Pitino on Kentucky's legendary 1996 national championship team that finished 34-2 and had nine future NBA players on the roster, sent Big Blue Nation into a frenzy on Sunday at his opening press conference at a soldout Rupp Arena.

Among the highlights of his introduction, which included him and fellow alumni getting off a bus that pulled into Rupp, Pope was asked about his scheduling philosophy.

"Anybody down for a game with St. John's?," Pope asked the crowd, which applauded. The Kentucky head coach appears to have a totally different mindset from his predecessor John Calipari, telling the fans that UK is "our program" and that he wants to get Kentucky back into marquee events like the Maui Invitational, which the Wildcats have not participated in since 2010. 


On Monday morning, Pitino responded to Pope's question.

"Wow, just saw clips from our Captain's press conference. Not shocked, but pleasantly surprised. Would expect nothing less from Coach Mark Pope," said Pitino, who was at Kentucky from 1989-97.

"Also. St. John's accepts, this year at UK, next year at The Mecca. Looking forward to saying goodbye to Kentucky."

Obviously, the formalities of this still have to be worked out but all signs point to the Johnnies and Wildcats meeting for the first time since 2011. 

"I can guarantee you one thing: nobody epitomizes the name Kentucky on the front of the jersey more than Mark Pope," Pitino said Friday of the hire in a video. "You have one of the more premier young coaches in the game. Relish it, because he will do you proud." 

Pitino, who led Kentucky to Final Fours in 1993, 1996 and 1997, is coming off a 20-13 season at St. John's in year one at the helm that saw the Red Storm narrowly miss the NCAA Tournament.

As for Pope, he jumped right into the job and will have plenty of roster constructing to do. On Monday, five-star recruit Boogie Fland asked for his release from the program, with John Calipari and Arkansas likely being his destination. Rising sophomore guard DJ Wagner also entered the transfer portal.

John Fanta is a national college basketball broadcaster and writer for FOX Sports. He covers the sport in a variety of capacities, from calling games on FS1 to serving as lead host on the BIG EAST Digital Network to providing commentary on The Field of 68 Media Network. Follow him on Twitter @John_Fanta.

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