Take 5: Top Kentucky candidates to replace John Calipari

League: NCAA Basketball

Posted on: 08 Apr, 2024 at 05:31 PM

Credit: Patrick Breen/The Republic / USA TODAY NETWORK

A stunning domino effect has left Kentucky searching for a coach to replace the embattled John Calipari, who is reportedly leaving the Wildcats for SEC rival Arkansas.

In some ways, it may be ripping the band-aid off a situation where Calipari had lost significant faith from both athletic director Mitch Barnhart and a rabid fan base. But who replaces the 65-year-old, who led Kentucky to a national title and three other Final Four appearances, may turn out to be far more complex than one would anticipate for one of the nation's most prestigious programs.

Several potential marquee candidates either have buyouts that could prove problematic or aren't expected to be drawn to the job -- think former Villanova coach Jay Wright, Gonzaga's Mark Few and UConn's Danny Hurley.

The ripple effect began when SMU fired Rob Lanier following a 20-win season, leading Andy Enfield to surprisingly bolt Southern California for the ACC-bound Mustangs. That in turn created an opening with the Trojans that Eric Musselman jumped at, opening the door for Calipari to be lured by well-backed boosters with whom he has ties.

The next domino to fall is now likely to be who Kentucky sets its sights on -- and who is interested in taking on the massive spotlight that constantly shines on the Wildcats' program. Here are five potential candidates:

5. Rick Pitino, St. John's: That the 71-year-old is even on this list speaks to the hurdles Kentucky may find itself navigating. Pitino led the Wildcats to the national title in 1996 and nearly repeated the feat the following year. He then bolted for the NBA and has made sixth other stops since. Most recent is St. John's, which narrowly missed out on an NCAA Tournament berth this season. It's a longshot, but not impossible to see the Wildcats going back to the well here.

4. Billy Donovan, Chicago Bulls: Whether Donovan is interested in returning to the college scene is a big unknown. If he is, the 58-year-old could quickly leap to the head of the pack. Donovan won a pair of national titles while at Florida along with two other Final Four appearances. He also has ties to Kentucky, where he began his coaching career as an assistant under Pitino from 1989-94. However, does he want to return to a college basketball recruiting scene driven by the transfer portal and NIL deals?

3. Mark Pope, BYU: Pope played under Pitino and Donovan on the 1996 title team and his ties to Kentucky run very deep. He's not the biggest name on the Wildcats' likely list of candidates, but Pope has rebuilt the BYU program into one that qualified for this year's NCAA Tournament. Kentucky has the resources to attract the attention of far bigger names on the national stage and typically swings big in its coaching searches. But if the interest from marquee names doesn't prove to be mutual, Pope could emerge as a legitimate contender.

2. Nate Oats, Alabama: Oats is fresh off a Final Four run with the Crimson Tide, but he also has an $18 million buyout. The 49-year-old Oats took over the Crimson Tide in 2019 after five years with Buffalo. After a 16-15 record in his first season, Alabama has reached the NCAA Tournament each of the past four seasons, including a pair of Sweet 16 appearances before this year's Final Four run.

1. Scott Drew, Baylor: Prying Drew away from Baylor may prove a significant challenge. He took over the program in 2003 after a short stint at Valparaiso following his legendary father, Homer Drew, and has led the Bears to a pair of Big 12 regular-season titles the past three years along with the national championship in 2021. Drew also recently turned down Louisville.

--Field Level Media