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The sky is the limit for Pope in his senior season

Senior+forward+Malik+Pope+runs+in+transition+during+SDSU%27s+91-52+opening+game+win+over+San+Diego+Christian.
Senior forward Malik Pope runs in transition during SDSU's 91-52 opening game win over San Diego Christian.

Senior forward Malik Pope runs in transition during SDSU's 91-52 opening game win over San Diego Christian.

Photo by Samantha Bonpensiero

Photo by Samantha Bonpensiero

Senior forward Malik Pope runs in transition during SDSU's 91-52 opening game win over San Diego Christian.

by Abraham Jewett, Assistant Sports Editor

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A big question coming into San Diego State’s 2017-18 men’s basketball season was how good senior forward Malik Pope would be.

After Pope led his Aztecs to a season opening 91-52 beatdown of San Diego Christian College, scoring a game-high 20 points with six rebounds, the answer is clear: As good as he wants.

Pope came out on fire, scoring the first two points of the season, and putting up eight points before three minutes had passed.

His alley-oop slam off a lob pass from true freshman forward Matt Mitchell gave SDSU a 14-0 first period lead, and sent Viejas Arena into hysteria.

Following the victory, Pope declined to take much credit for the dunk, or his performance as a whole.

“I could just thank Matt Mitchell for the lob, that was a great pass,” Pope said. “All my teammates too, honestly.”

Pope, at 6-foot-10, certainly had a size advantage on the court – no SDC player stood taller than 6-foot-5.

However what truly stood out was not the way he dominated, but the ease with which he did.

“That was the beauty of Malik’s game today,” SDSU head coach Brian Dutcher said. “You never felt like he was forcing his game, it just came really easy to him.”

The truth is it hasn’t always been easy for Pope, who came to SDSU in 2014 as a Rivals.com five-star recruit out of Laguna Creek High School in Elk Grove, CA, despite missing most of his junior and all of his senior season with a leg injury.

He was able to stay healthy his first two years at the Mesa, but last season the injury bug reared its ugly head once again, causing him to miss nine games with a hurt knee.  

The Aztecs went 5-4 with Pope out of the lineup, and failed to reach postseason play for the first time since the 2004-05 season after finishing with a record of 19-14.

Pope spent his offseason getting stronger and preparing his body for the rigors of a full season, something he spoke about during the Aztecs’ first practice.

“I changed my diet, my habits, my work ethic,” he said. “That’s what the summer was about to me, you know, pushing through the season preparing my body.”  

Pope also worked on perfecting aspects of his game, such as knowing where to be out on the court so as to give himself and his team the best opportunity to make plays.

“During the offseason I honestly worked on being in the right spot, taking advantage of mismatches,” Pope said after the game. “What we do is we feed off that and start a chain.”

It remains to be seen whether Pope can continually score 20 points a night (his average of 11 points per game last season was his career best at SDSU), but while we are only one game into the 2017 season, it is already clear: where Pope goes, so go the Aztecs.

Just ask his head coach.

“We’ve seen this level of play. We’ve seen it in the conference tournament the last two years, when he looks like an NBA player,” Dutcher said. “If he has that kind of athleticism and he’s able to sit down and play that kind of defense and let the game come easy, then he’s going to have a good year, and the Aztecs are going to have a good year.”

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