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Former Quips star leads Seton Hall vs. Pitt

| Sunday, Jan. 24, 2010

Seton Hall coach Bobby Gonzalez realizes Herb Pope could make a bad decision or wrong step at any time.

But for now, his gifted yet troubled forward has earned the benefit of the doubt.

"Obviously, he could make a mistake tomorrow," Gonzalez said. "But people need to give him credit for what he's done so far and let it play out. Right now, he's been a success story."

Pope, the former Aliquippa star, is thriving in his first season playing at Seton Hall and seems to have distanced himself from the off-the-court problems that dotted his past.

For the first time, Pope will play against the school he once vowed to attend when No. 9 Pitt (15-3, 5-1 Big East) travels to Seton Hall (11-6, 2-4) at 2 p.m. today at Prudential Center in Newark, N.J.

Pitt is trying to rebound from its first Big East loss, 74-66, to Georgetown, while Seton Hall is soaring from its biggest win of the season, 80-77, over Louisville on Thursday night.

The 6-foot-8, 235-pound Pope, a five-star recruit coming out of high school, has finally found a home. The sophomore forward sat out last season after transferring from New Mexico State, yet already is making an impact in the Big East.

Less than three years after being shot four times outside an Aliquippa house party, Pope is averaging 12.3 points and 11.2 rebounds, joining Syracuse's Wes Johnson as the only Big East players averaging a double-double in conference play.

Pope, who has started all 17 games, had 10 points, seven rebounds and four assists against Louisville before fouling out with 1:51 to play.

"I'm very happy for him," Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. "We've known him for a long time, recruited him a long time. I wasn't sure if he was going to play again (after the shooting). I'm thankful that he is and I'm glad for him."

Pope, who originally committed to Pitt as a sophomore, has become an inside force for a Seton Hall team that finished last in the Big East in rebounding margin last season.

Pope had 20 rebounds against VMI — the most by a Seton Hall player in nine years — and 17 boards against Syracuse. Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun called Pope "sensational" after his 10-point, 14-rebound effort against the Huskies on Jan. 6.

Most important, he is staying out of trouble. Pope, who grew up in foster homes, spent 11 days in the hospital after being shot in the abdomen (twice), thigh and left forearm in March 2007. Other problems were self-inflicted, such as getting kicked off his AAU team after punching an assistant coach at an Orlando tournament and a DUI charge in Moon in December 2007. At times, his effort was questioned.

"Herb was always a real smart guy, but given two choices, he always made the wrong one," said J.O. Stright, Pope's AAU coach. "I'm very impressed with what he's doing. He knows his role. He's doing what they need him to do instead of it being all about Herb."

Media interview requests with Pope were declined this week, a decision made by Gonzalez, according to the school's athletic department. But the fourth-year coach gushed about his star forward during the Big East's weekly teleconference.

"I think Herb has a chance to be one of the better guys in this conference," Gonzalez said. "He really wants to improve. I think the sky's the limit for Herb."

The path to Seton Hall wasn't typical. Pope attended New Mexico State, mainly to get away from Aliquippa and play for Aggies coach Reggie Theus, the former NBA star. But Theus was hired by the Sacramento Kings prior to Pope's freshman year.

Still, Pope was named to the 2007-08 WAC All-Newcomer team despite playing only 16 games at New Mexico State following an NCAA clearinghouse issue.

But Theus' departure, combined with some family matters, prompted Pope to return to the East Coast, so he enrolled in Seton Hall.

Pope rarely returns to Aliquippa anymore. New York Jets Pro Bowl cornerback Darrelle Revis, an Aliquippa native, and Pope speak on the phone frequently, and Revis advised him against it.

"We're not going to tell him never to go home," Gonzalez said. "But just like Darrelle Revis told him, 'You got to go back to Aliquippa. You've got to see your family. But don't stay long. There's not much there for you.' I think Herb recognizes that. He understands this is his second and last chance."

Additional Information:

Game info

No. 9 Pitt (15-3, 5-1 Big East) at Seton Hall (11-6, 2-4)

When/where: 2 p.m. Sunday/Prudential Center

TV/Radio: FSN-Pittsburgh/WWSW-FM (94.5), WBGG-AM (970)

Favorite: Seton Hall by 2

Series record: Pitt leads 29-19

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