Commentary

Herb Pope to make much-anticipated debut

Originally Published: January 18, 2008
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

If you think this season's freshmen class is deep, just wait until Saturday.

After traversing one of the more checkered paths to get on the floor in recent history, one more stellar freshman will make his debut Saturday.

Finally, New Mexico State freshman forward Herb Pope will play for the Aggies against Louisiana Tech (ESPN Full Court, 9 p.m. ET), ending what has been a drawn-out courtship for Pope to NMSU that hit a slew of speed bumps along the way.

"I'm just overwhelmed with joy," Pope said by phone from Las Cruces. "It's going to be a very emotional day for me to finally get a start on my college career."

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[+] EnlargeHerb Pope
Charles LeClaire/WireImage.comNew Mexico State freshman Herb Pope has not played since high school, but his impact with the Aggies could shift power in the WAC.

Just check what Pope went through the past year:

• In March 2007, Pope was shot four times in his hometown of Aliquippa, Pa. The man who shot him pleaded guilty to the charge of attempted homicide, and he was sentenced to six to 16 years in prison.

"The gunshot situation was the hardest of them all that I had to overcome," Pope said. "It's something I couldn't prevent. I was a block from home. You should be able to go wherever you want in your own town."

• Following a coaching change from Reggie Theus -- who signed Pope at New Mexico State but left the program to join the Sacramento Kings -- to Marvin Menzies, Pope decided to honor his commitment over the summer.

But he wasn't cleared to play or practice with the Aggies because of a core class he took on the Internet in high school. He said he was told it counted, but the NCAA's clearinghouse rejected the course.

Pope hired an attorney, who filed a lawsuit against New Mexico State (the school has to technically deem a player eligible). On Jan. 11, the NCAA reversed its decision and ruled Pope eligible. The Las Cruces Sun News and El Paso Times reported last week that the lawsuit was expected to be dropped.

"The NCAA thing I couldn't prevent as well," the 6-foot-8 Pope said. "I was told the whole time that the class was legit. But I had to go through the process."

• Pope wasn't always the victim. During winter break, he was arrested on Dec. 28 in Moon, Pa., for a DUI.

"The DUI, that was a mistake," Pope said. "I made no excuses for that. It was my fault. I made a mistake, and I'm looking forward to putting that behind me and show that I'm a quality kid and to be on the right track."

Pope was eligible for last Saturday's game at Utah State, but Menzies tacked on a one-game suspension for the DUI.

"Mentally he seems ready to move forward," Menzies said. "Fortunately his basketball skill is undeniable. He was one of the better high school kids coming and not too many schools add a freshman like this in the middle of the year.

"I'm hoping for his sake that he plays well and he keeps his focus. I've prepped him that there will be a transition period. He'll do well. He's got a great basketball IQ, and he's savvy on the court."

The Aggies are also anticipating the return of starting center Hatila Passos, who had been suspended for a violation of team rules for the last six games.

Reserve Paris Carter was suspended for the same amount of time but as of Thursday, he hasn't been cleared to play.

The Aggies are a collection of transfers that should be better than their 9-10 record (3-1 in the WAC). Clearly, the schedule has been tough. They went to Ohio and Duke to start the season, played Texas and West Virginia at the Legends Classic in Newark, went to Louisville and have already played four games against rivals New Mexico and UTEP.

With Pope on board, a collection of consistent scorers -- Justin Hawkins, Jonathan Gibson, Jahmar Young and Fred Peete -- and the shot-blocking ability of Martin Iti, the Aggies figure to be the favorite in the WAC.

But how much impact will Pope have?

"I've had one practice with him and I know he'll add [to the team]," Menzies said. "He knows what to do in clutch situations. He knows how to win."

Pope said he hasn't played in a game since a high school tournament in Pennsylvania last March. He worked out on his own while he was ineligible.

But he's itching to get in and have as much of an impact as his 2007 freshman classmates.

"I'm ready to compete on the Division I level," Pope said. "I can help by being high energy, rebounding, blocking shots and doing the little things to win."

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com