Pope the key cog for Seton Hall with Hazell gone
SOUTH ORANGE, N.J. (AP)
"I feel like I'm a little better than 100 percent," Pope said. "My ultimate goal this year is to be the Big East Player of the Year. I totally respect the others in the league.
"But I now feel like I am one of the best power forwards in the country."
That's a complete resurrection for the 6-foot-8 Pope, who was a mere shell of himself last season. He averaged 9.8 points and 7.9 rebounds, a year after averaging 11.5 and a conference-leading 10.7, becoming the first Seton Hall player to lead the league in rebounding since Glenn Mosley in 1976-77.
In April of 2010, Pope collapsed during offseason workouts at Seton Hall and was found by the school's training staff without a pulse or a heartbeat. After being rushed to the hospital, still unconscious, it was determined that he had an anomalous right coronary artery, a condition Pope was born with. Surgery repaired the problem, but it took a while for Pope to regain the strength and endurance he once had.
At times last season, he looked overweight and out of shape. His once-potent short range jump shot was gone and he had a tough time getting shots off down low against players he dominated the year before.
"Sure, it was frustrating," Pope said. "I knew I wasn't playing well and it hurt me. But thankfully, coach (Kevin) Willard was on my side and stuck with me. He helped me get through it."
After the season, a year where the Pirates finished 13-18 and lost to Rutgers in the opening round of the Big East Tournament in overtime, Pope faced the crossroads. He could either pursue a professional career, which was highly unlikely due to his subpar performance, or return to Seton Hall to continue his education, get his degree and play one final season.
"I had no choice but to come back," said Pope, who had the extra year of eligibility after transferring to Seton Hall from the New Mexico State three years ago. "I had the chance to graduate and I had the opportunity to play again."
In the offseason, Pope traveled to Houston to play and train under the guidance of former NBA coach John Lucas for seven weeks. Pope had been friendly with Lucas' son, Jai, who is currently at the University of Texas, so he gained the elder Lucas' confidence through his son.
"Coach Lucas extended his hand and invited me to come," Pope said. "Coach Willard gave help in setting it up. It was great."
During his seven weeks in Houston, Pope worked out with Derrick Williams of the Minnesota Timberwolves, the second pick overall in the NBA draft, Damion James of the New Jersey Nets, Jonny Flynn of the Minnesota Timberwolves and Tristan Thompson, the former Texas star who was the fourth overall in the draft by the Cleveland Cavaliers.
"I played well down there and proved to be one of the top power forwards in the camp," Pope said. "It definitely helped me and helped me gain respect from a lot of people and my opponents."
Now, Pope feels ready for the challenge ahead.
"This is really the first time in my life that I've ever been really healthy," said Pope, who survived being shot five times in an incident near his home in Aliquippa, Pa., a few years ago. "I was never really healthy, because I never knew that the heart disease was there."
Willard has high hopes for Pope.
"Herb will be honest and the first one to tell you that he's right and doing all the right things," said Willard, who will begin his second year with the Pirates when they begin the season at the Prudential Center Nov. 12 against St. Francis of New York. "No one comes back from what he went through and is healthy right away. He had a whole summer to work on getting back and everything we saw of him on film two years ago is back now. His skill level is back and I think he's a first or second team All-Big East player this year."
Pope is one of two Pirates seniors with experience, the other being point guard Jordan Theodore, who looks to improve on his 11-point scoring average and four assists per game from last year. Sophomore Fuquan Edwin, who made a big splash early on last year then faded down the stretch, will return at small forward. He averaged nearly eight points and four rebounds.
The Pirates will miss Jeremy Hazell's 20 points per game, as well as Jeff Robinson's 12.1 points and 6.4 rebounds, but will look to sophomore Patrik Auda to step up in the front court, as well as six highly touted freshmen, the best being 6-2 guard Aaron Cosby of Louisville, Ky., and 6-9 center Kevin Johnson of Compton, Calif.