“Yay” for Pope’s Crowd Size, But Calipari Wins Round 1 Battle That Matters

John Calipari, Zvonimir Ivišić, Mark Pope, Arkansas basketball, Kentucky basketball, transfer portal
photo credit: Arkansas Athletics / Kentucky Athletics

Arkansas basketball coach John Calipari took the first step toward filling his completely empty roster with the commitment of 7-foot-2 center Zvonimir Ivisic on Monday afternoon.

Ivisic will follow Calipari from Kentucky to Arkansas after playing one season with the Wildcats. Born and raised in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Ivisic moved to Croatia when he was 14 years old and lived there until he moved stateside to play college basketball.

In his only season in Lexington, Ivisic averaged 5.5 points, 3.3 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in limited minutes, but flashed tremendous potential. Due to a prolonged eligibility dispute with the NCAA, he wasn’t able to make his debut until more than halfway through the season – on Jan. 20 against Georgia.

The 20-year-old immediately showed his talent, scoring 13 points on 5 of 7 shooting, grabbing five rebounds and blocking three shots in just 16 minutes of action. Against Alabama, who went on to make the Final Four, Ivisic put up 18 points, 5 rebounds and 4 blocks in a dominant performance.

Ivisic’s length makes him an imposing shot-blocking presence, and he has impressive range on the perimeter, shooting 37.5% from three. He will be a great fit as a floor spacer and a stretch big, and the Croatian is a nightmare for both opponents and commentators on the pronunciation guide.

Calipari vs. Pope – Round 1

The intra-conference move of John Calipari to an SEC rival has sparked some tensions online between Arkansas and Kentucky basketball fans. The hotly-contested on-court matchups in recent years combined with the recent events on the coaching carousel have made that bad blood spill over.

The pettiness levels are through the roof, as we’ve even got to the point of Kentucky fans and media taking potshots at Arkansas for the relative size of its new coach’s introductory press conference. Yes, really. It’s stunning that you get more people in an arena on a Sunday than you do on a Wednesday night when it’s pouring rain – but that’s a subject for a different column.

With rumors swirling about Kentucky’s highly-touted recruiting class following Calipari to Arkansas, it’s become a sort of jostling match between Calipari and new UK coach Mark Pope to get the signatures of these blue-chip prospects.

Five-stars Jayden Quaintance and Boogie Fland have already requested releases from their letters of intent, and five-star Karter Knox decommitted from the Wildcats last week. Freshman guard DJ Wagner, a former McDonald’s All American, entered the transfer portal just hours before Ivisic’s commitment to Arkansas.

There’s blood in the water in Lexington, and the slick-talking Calipari will certainly be hoping to open the floodgates and convince many, if not all, of the blue-chip recruits he swooned to Lexington to join him at Arkansas.

The recruitment of Zvonimir Ivisic was the first of what is likely to be many battles between Calipari and Pope this offseason, and the Hall of Famer got the better of the Kentucky alum in the first go-around. Pope met with Ivisic on Monday morning with the hopes of convincing him to stay in Lexington, but the Croatian informed him that he would be leaving the Wildcats.

In a statement made by Ivisic, he said that “a monumental part of that decision was Coach Cal,” who made a huge effort to recruit him and bring him overseas to coach him. If Ivisic traveled almost 5,000 miles to play for Calipari in Lexington, what’s the big deal about moving that operation a couple states away?

Croatian Connection with Arkansas Basketball

Arkansas’ latest commitment won’t be the first Croatian to suit up for the Razorbacks. That honor belongs to Davor Rimac, a 6-foot-7 forward who was a key role player on the 1994 national championship team. Rimac played 11.9 minutes per game and even started 12 games that season, shooting 40.5% from three.

Rimac was born and raised in Zagreb, Croatia, eventually landing in Arkansas and attending Fayetteville High School. After a brief career in professional basketball, he moved back to his home country and worked as an IT specialist and a teacher at the International School of Zagreb.

While the pair did not previously know each other, Rimac showed support for his fellow Croatian and now-fellow Razorback Zvonimir Ivisic in a friendly exchange in the comment section of his announcement post.

In 10 years’ time, this Croatia-to-Arkansas pipeline will make one hell of a trivia question during a timeout in Bud Walton Arena. Especially if both eastern Europeans end up contributing to national title winners.

The commitment of Zvonimir Ivisic is big for Arkansas, both literally and figuratively. The lanky Croatian will be just the seventh 7-footer to suit up for the Razorbacks in program history, according to HogStats. They haven’t had one regular feature in the rotation since Steven Hill in 2007-08.

In the 16 years since then, Arkansas has certainly had its fair share of standout big men – Daniel Gafford, Bobby Portis, Moses Kingsley and Jaylin Williams, to name a few – but all of those stars were hovering around 6-foot-10 or 6-foot-11. None fit the bill of a true 7-footer.

The very large elephant in the room is the time that center Connor Vanover spent at Arkansas, but the 7-foot-5 giant was never a consistent part of Eric Musselman’s rotation – eventually leading to him hitting the portal after three seasons in Fayetteville.

Despite his size, Ivisic is pretty fleet-footed for a guy of his stature. His length and athleticism will likely allow him to be a consistent part of Calipari’s rotation – especially with eligibility issues in the rear view mirror and a full offseason to get comfortable. With his 7-foot-2 frame, it will be a sight to see if Ivisic can fulfill his huge potential.

Calipari’s first portal splash also hits an area where his predecessor was a bit deficient – the recruiting of big men. Setting aside the excellence of the crafty Jaylin Williams and Justin Smith, Musselman’s teams at Arkansas often came up short – pun partially intended – in the frontcourt. In his first season in Fayetteville, for example, the tallest player in the rotation was 6-foot-7 Adrio Bailey.

The last two years, Arkansas has sort of lacked that interior punch at the 5 spot. While Calipari will still need to find more of a “bruiser” type of big man to complement Ivisic, the addition of the Croatian will go a long way for the Hogs’ rim protection next season – and his lob threat and shooting touch will make him an effective weapon on offense, too.

There’s still plenty of work for Calipari to do in the portal, as Ivisic’s commitment fills just one of 13 available scholarship spots. Will the next domino to fall be another Kentucky basketball defection? We’ll have to wait and see.


Check out some highlights of new Arkansas basketball transfer portal commit Zvonimir Ivisic from his lone year with Kentucky basketball:

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