By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
After a quick one-day turnaround, West Virginia returns to the Big East wars as they face Seton Hall in Newark, N.J., in a game that is best looked at as a battle between a pair of heavyweights.
In the gold and blue corner is the Mountaineers’ power and powerful forward Kevin Jones, looking the role of a heavyweight contender with a stitched up gash in the eyebrow above his right eye, while in the blue and white corner of Seton Hall their power forward Herb Pope, a man who has more than a few scars of his own.
Jones comes into the game leading the Big East in scoring with 20.4 points a game with Pope third in scoring at 19.0 while Jones also leads in rebounds with 11.5 per contest while Pope is second at 11.2.
Both are coming off sub-par games, Jones being held scoreless in the second half against Villanova, in part due to the cut he suffered during the game, and finished with 13 points and 9 rebounds in a WVU victory over Villanova. While Pope, taking his lumps against the nation’s No. 1 team, Syracuse, contributed only four points while committing six turnovers.
“I contributed too many turnovers,” said Pope, who was averaging 20.3 points per game going into the game. “I didn’t execute the game plan as far as getting the big kid (Syracuse center Fab Melo) off his feet, going into him. I helped him have a stellar game.”
That Pope is even playing is something of a miracle, as his biography plays out more like a made-for-TV movie.
By the time he was 21 he had suffered a gunshot wound, fathered a child, transferred colleges and committed a dirty foul in front of a national television audience … and that was before he collapsed last year on the court.
From just up the road in Aliquippa, Pa., which also produced a pair of pretty fair football players for Pitt in Tony Dorsett and Mike Ditka, Pope was a prep sensation. Before he escaped Aliquippa, however, he was shot four times while leaving a party on March 31, 2007.
He recovered from that, enrolled at New Mexico State, but opted to leave after Coach Reggie Theus went to the Sacramento Kings, entering Seton Hall.
It has been a rocky road, for sure, in stark contrast to the squeaky clean reputation that Kevin Jones brought out of Mount Vernon, N.Y., and has lived up to at West Virginia.
The two, of course, have battled on the Big East floor numerous times, Jones always coming out with the victory. Last year, when WVU stymied the Hall, 56-44, Pope had 8 points and 7 rebounds while Jones had 12 points and 12 rebounds.
In 2010 it was more of the same, Jones scored 35 points with 23 rebounds in two victories while Pope was scoring 20 and pulled down 21 rebounds.
For Pope, that came after he was hospitalized following his on-court collapse.
Both players went through the NBA analysis process last year, with both deciding they would return for their final collegiate seasons.
"I thought it would increase my chances of not only being in the NBA, but staying in the NBA and having a long career," he said.
Huggins had no problem with Jones going through the process and acted as an advisor to him.
“I've had more guys in the NBA than some general managers," Huggins said. "It's like they're going to pay someone to go to a workout guy. You think a workout guy would change places with me? Probably. If he was any good, he wouldn't be a workout guy. He'd have a real job."
It was obvious the 6-8, 260-pound Jones was not ready for the NBA a year ago and it appears he made the proper decision to return to school.
"Everyone has been saying it was a good idea for me to come back," he said. "I worked hard in the offseason. I guess it's showing now."
Jones’ value may have been most evident when he was out of the Villanova game getting his eye patched up.
“We were struggling when KJ wasn’t in there,” Huggins said. “I don’t think KJ scored in the second half but you saw how important he is to us because he gets everyone where they are supposed to be and he get so much attention it opens up things for everyone else.”
Seton Hall had won eight straight going into the Syracuse game while WVU’s victory over Villanova ran their record to 10-3.
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/bhertzel.