Transfer key to Pope's improvement

Seton’s Hall turnaround from a team known for off-court drama to a squad that’s off to an 11-1 start this season can be attributed to multiple factors.

Players have bought into Kevin Willard’s system in his second year with the program. Jordan Theodore has matured into one of the Big East’s most talented point guards. And the Pirates, who play at No. 1 Syracuse tonight, have more confidence after winning their past eight games.

But 6-8 forward Herb Pope is arguably the most important element of Seton Hall’s surge. He’s averaging 20.3 points and 11.4 rebounds per game. The senior partially attributes his improvement to practice sessions with a large transfer who’s playing the role of Pope’s sparring partner while he sits out the season.

Gene Teague was a respectable contributor for Southern Illinois last season. The 6-9, 290-pound big man could make noise in the Big East once he’s eligible next season. For now, however, he’s helping Pope get better by pushing him around in practice.

At his size, Pope rarely finds opposition with similar proportions, which makes Teague’s presence even more important for the senior and the Pirates, according to Brendan Prunty of the Star Ledger:

The big kid is Gene Teague, the sparring partner who has helped Pope transform into one of the most dominant big men in the Big East this season.

“He doesn’t back down,” Teague said before practice began. “Usually I’m the biggest guy on the court, but he doesn’t back down. He keeps coming. I’ve never had a guy that’s never backed down from me, but he’s as strong as they come.”

One look at Teague, a Vineland native, and it’s easy to see why Pope has benefitted from their practice battles. The transfer from Southern Illinois — who must sit out this season due to NCAA regulations — is a classic big man. He eats up space around the basket, but is deft enough to force other players around him to take him seriously on offense. And on defense, he’s nearly an immovable object. Which is why Pope has been able to hone his low-post game so well this season.

Pope has been able to go up against a true big man in practice for an entire season for the first time. So when he sees many of the more athletic centers that opposing teams trot out, Pope has the upper hand already.

“He’s made me have to work on my moves,” Pope said. “I couldn’t just try and sit there on the perimeter. I had to develop a better skill set and be able to maneuver and get past him, because I can’t go through him

It’s hard to imagine a player that much larger than Pope. But it’s easy to see how competing against a player with that kind of size has helped him improve.

Pope will see a lot of length against the Orange and throughout Big East play. Teague’s efforts could prove to be beneficial throughout the season.