Chalk Talk: UVU Coach Mark Pope’s love of chaos

By Alex Markham

In each issue, Winners Utah will conduct a chalk talk session with coaches and figures from local sports programs.

A Look At UVU Basketball Coach Mark Pope’s Up-Tempo Coaching Style

“WE´RE
TRYING
TO BE THE
AGGRESSOR”
-COACH MARK POPE

Chalk Talk: UVU Coach Mark Pope’s love of chaos

By Mikey Saltas

In each issue, Winners Utah will conduct a chalk talk session with coaches and figures from local sports programs.

For our inaugural issue, we caught up with new Ute offensive coordinator, Troy Taylor, who explains his quarterback-friendly spread offense.

Utah Valley University isn’t the most likely place to find elite, widely coveted high school basketball recruits. The Wolverines know that to shape a competitive roster for NCAA competition, they need to take other paths. During the 2017-18 season, UVU is relying upon an unprecedented 14 transfers into their program.

The Wolverines head basketball coach, Mark Pope, understands that in order to win, his team must force the issue against their opponents and set the tempo, no matter the lineup on the court. Regardless of the outcome, it’s a strategy Pope always adheres to.

“The core idea that we base our schematic philosophy on and the way we approach in-game action is trying to be the aggressor,” Pope said.

Most Games Are Lost, Not Won

Before taking over the Wolverines in 2015, Pope still vividly remembers a conversation he had with University of Georgia’s Mark Fox, his first coaching mentor. Pope noted how Fox advised him to play a controlled, deliberate offense. Pope recalls how Fox said to keep the number of possessions to a minimum, to play like it was a 45-possession game because that gives fewer possessions for the more talented team to win. Most games are lost—not won, according to Fox. “His whole philosophy is, ‘I’m not going to lose this game,’ and it’s smart, it’s right, it’s good—it’s good basketball,” Pope said. Pope, then a new coach, appreciated Fox’s words, but he didn’t exactly heed his advice.

Coach Pope plotting some plays

“We did the exact opposite of what Coach [Fox] told me to do,” Pope said. “We tried to have as many possessions as we possibly could in the game, and it was incredibly successful for us. It was genius. It worked so well for us. We won probably nine games that we had no business winning. Pope said he always asks his players, “Are you going to be the team that’s going to go win or not lose? For better or worse, we’re trying to be the team that’s trying to win,” Pope said. “We’re trying to go beat you,” Pope said, “so we’re trying to be the aggressor all the time.”

On Creating Chaos

Although he respects his relationship and mentorship with Fox, Coach Pope believes his game strategy mirrors the way George Karl, his former coach with the Denver Nuggets, approached the game of basketball.

“Coach Karl always wanted to turn (the game) upside down, turn it on it’s head,” Pope said. “He wanted to do what everyone thought was the dumbest thing in the world, and the craziest thing is: It worked. He was going to break every convention of the game.”

Rarely the favorite and sometimes 30-point underdogs against certain teams on the schedule, the Wolverines use sheer will to find ways to combat the discrepancy in talent between rosters. While Pope wants to play aggressively on both ends of the court, it’s not as easy for his squad to retain the same intensity on defense.

“I’d love to create chaos like that,” Pope said. “I would love to grow this program into a team that was really comfortable playing run and jump, all game long, getting the game a little more helter-skelter. We’re just not quite probably there, yet.”

Pope said that his UVU squad relies on gap defense, requiring a defender to pressure the ball handler while relying on two teammates to help in the lanes behind him. Ideally, Pope wants his players to attack on defense with constant full-court pressure.

Despite the limitation on defense, the team’s offensive approach can be unnerving for their challengers. Just last season, the Wolverines defeated another of Pope’s former mentors, Dave Rose of BYU when they beat the Cougars 114-101. They also gave the University of Utah and Utah State University all they could handle before both of those teams eventually pulled away in the final minute.

The formula? Getting their taller, faster opponents playing on their heels. “If I can get the ball ahead and get the shot up with 3-4 seconds going off of the shot clock, and it’s an open three, I’ll take it every single time,” Pope said. “There’s very few times I won’t take that. I want to go score. I want to go beat you.”

Make, Miss & Steals

When they can’t get off a shot in the opening seconds of the shot clock, the Wolverines like to rely on being a hard, downhill team, deploying the pistol offense. Their approach consists of a ball-screen motion offense that involves dribble handoffs to a ball-screener, primarily utilizing that strategy when the team has to go small.

“There are some teams that only run off of steals and there are some teams that only try to go in transition off of misses,” Pope said.

“Then, there are some teams that try to push the ball off of make, miss, steal—everything. That’s us,” Pope noted.

“Then there’s the teams that are really dumb that want to go hard in transition, regardless of time and score,” Pope said. “We’re actually that far on the spectrum, where we’re dumb enough to go, even if the time and score doesn’t dictate to go.”

It’s an approach that Pope believes isn’t just great for his team, it’s also great entertainment for their fans.

“There’s those teams and programs where you’re kind of intrigued because you have no idea what the hell is about to happen,” Pope said. “I think there’s something intriguing to us about those teams. “We have a little bit of that juice in us, too,” Pope said.