Pope Looking Forward

Written by: Jason Groves/Sun-News Reporter

LAS CRUCES, N.M. - For those New Mexico State University basketball fans that show up at the Pan American Center on Saturday, keep an eye on No. 15.

It will be the first game in the collegiate career of Aggies freshman forward Herb Pope.

"I just want to break a sweat and just play with my teammates and have fun," Pope said.

Pope joined the Aggies for good this week after he received NCAA clearance late last week. Pope practiced the last two days and will play when the 9-10 Aggies host Louisiana Tech on Saturday.

"It was more running than I thought because we are in season but it was good," said Pope of Aggies practice. "I had some brain freezes sometimes, but everyone understands that I'm going to make mistakes early on because I don't know the offense right away."

Now that Pope has been cleared by the NCAA after missing the first 19 games, he can focus on basketball.

There was a hiccup in that focus when Pope was arrested in Moon, Pa., on Dec. 28, but the 6-foot-8, 235-pound freshman says he is looking forward and not behind him. He allows his attorney, Arnold Klein, to do that for him.

Last week, Klein said Pope would be better off in Las Cruces, away from the troubles that seem to surface when Pope spends time in his hometown of Aliquippa, Pa.

"I talked with him (Klein) very openly and freely," Pope said. "He just took the words out of my mouth. He felt the same way so he is going to do everything in his power to put Aliquippa behind me."

Pope still has a court date in March regarding the arrest, but he seemed carefree prior to practice on Tuesday.

"It feels good to finally get everything behind me and move forward," he said. "Everything (regarding his eligibility) in my eyes was legit from the jump. I'm just ready to come and contribute to the team any way that I can."

The notion of moving forward also explains why Pope elected to play as a freshman after 19 games rather than redshirt.

"I still have to adjust at some point in time so better now than never," he said. "I can play now and get these games under my belt and next year there won't be any adjustment period and I can be more effective for the next season."

In his first year on the job, Aggies head coach Marvin Menzies has seen a lot of roster movement. The addition of Pope and senior center Hatila Passos, who missed the last six games due to suspension, has Menzies excited.

"That was the excitement when I took the job," Menzies said. "You get hit with the curveballs and that's just part of the business. I don't think many teams in the country have a talent infusion like that in the middle of the year."

Menzies now has the luxury of going to a bench of talented, athletic players, without dropping off.

"I think we can do some things that I initially intended," Menzies said. "I can go back to some of the original concepts in terms of pressuring guys and being able to go deep into the bench and play a certain style of play."

Speaking of Pope's strengths, Menzies said after seeing him in action, there is a reason he was named the Western Athletic Conference preseason Newcomer of the Year.

"He is the package," Menzies said. "He is an NBA prototype so even not knowing all the plays, if I keep things simple until he gets familiar, I think that's why he can contribute."

Saturday is the first of a three-game home stand for Pope to get acclimated to his teammates on the court during a game.

Nevada and Utah State visit Las Cruces next week.

"I think that's a big plus," Menzies said. "Whatever heckling may come or whatever intervention on a negative level I think it's better to have that when he has a few games under his belt. I think being in a supportive environment is going to be conducive to his transition."

While Pope puts more distance between himself and Aliquippa, Menzies said Pope has brought some positive energy with him to Las Cruces.

Pope is joined in Las Cruces by his child and girlfriend.

"I've got my family here and I'm looking forward to living down here like I said back before I came," Pope said.

Jason Groves can be reached at jgroves@lcsun-news.com

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