Malik Pope brings the excitement

by Patrick Carr, Senior Staff Columnist

Freshman guard Trey Kell dribbled the ball to the right wing, stopped and threw a two-hand lob pass about a foot left of the basket where freshman forward Malik Pope was at the apex of his jump.

Everyone except the five Utah State University defenders on the floor saw the play developing.

Pope caught the ball with two hands, slammed down the alley-oop and continued earning the adoration of Aztec Nation while blasting Viejas Arena’s roof off.

That alley-oop during Saturday’s 62-42 dismantling of the Aggies proved one thing: there’s a new fan favorite on the Mesa.

Fans caught their first real glimpse of the freshman’s five-star prowess in December against San Diego Christian College when Pope grabbed a defensive rebound, dribbled coast to coast and did a nasty crossover before taking off about 12 feet away from the basket for an earth-shattering slam dunk.

Just a week and a half ago, Pope almost singlehandedly carried SDSU on the road against Colorado State University, but his breakout game of 22 points and seven rebounds wasn’t enough. The fans finally understood why he was highly recruited.

In the first half of Saturday’s game against Utah State, Pope, like the rest of the team, was completely off the mark and inept with the ball. Zero for two from the field and two turnovers in six minutes. Yet the crowd still buzzed with anticipation every time he got the ball.

In the second half, like the rest of the team, Pope blossomed and the crowd cheered on. First it was an offensive rebound putback. Then came a 3-pointer, courtesy of the smooth jump shot. Then the alley-oop and two more deep balls for a grand total of 13 points in just 13 second-half minutes.

Whenever he was on the court, the mood around the arena changed. It was more electric; there’s a certain aura about Pope, as Quinn said after the game.

So why do fans love him? He’s refreshing. Refreshing because he just looks like he’s on another level offensively than everyone else. The quickness, awareness, silky smooth shot; it’s no wonder the fans booed junior forward Winston Shepard’s air-ball layup and roared when Pope kept sinking 3-pointers.

Every time Pope steps onto the court, people pay a bit more attention, wondering what he will do next. He’s not breaking records left and right, but his style of play is different, a welcome sight to the beleaguered fan base that’s had to endure such wretched performances this season, most notably the road tilts in Seattle and Fresno.

He does many things so well. He can rebound on defense and offense. Head coach Steve Fisher always wants the team to crash the glass and Pope is 6 feet 10 inches tall (the flat top probably adds another two inches), has a big wingspan, can jump high and is aggressive on the glass.

Pope is also a surprisingly good ball handler. It’s not often you see a 6-foot-10 player who can dribble through traffic and push the ball up the court, which is another thing he does that refreshes the crowd. A lot of times when SDSU players grab rebounds, they just jog up the court. Pope pushes the issue.

The mere sight of Pope galloping toward the other end is something that excites the crowd, scares the opposing defense and also keeps the Aztecs themselves on their toes.

“He’s a young cat, he’s ready, full of energy,” Quinn said after Saturday’s game. “When we know he has the ball, everybody runs, because they know he might pass them the ball or he might make a spectacular play.”

Dare we compare the electricity Pope brings to the presence once brought by one Kawhi Leonard? I think maybe we consider having that discussion if Pope keeps playing like this.