As the Connecticut men's basketball team prepared to board a bus Monday for its week in New Jersey, freshman center Andre Drummond was asked about going up against Seton Hall big man Herb Pope.
"I don't even know who that is," Drummond said. "I'm not trying to be disrespectful. I've heard the name. They said it to me today in practice but I was like, ‘Who's Herb Pope?' "
Wow. That sounds pretty cocky coming from a guy with 13 college games under his belt.
So, the Seton Hall Pirates can post that on their locker room bulletin board and use it for motivation if they want. But anyone who heard Drummond say that knew there was no malicious intent in Drummond's words. The 6-foot-10 freshman is taking the same approach to every game.
"I'm worried about UConn, not about any other team that we're playing," Drummond said Monday, repeating the exact sentiment he expressed last week before the Huskies played St. John's.
Before the No. 8 Huskies (12-1, 2-0 Big East) take the floor at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., Drummond will know everything he needs to know about Pope. The Huskies talked to reporters Monday before the coaching staff had a chance to hand out the Seton Hall (12-2, 1-1) scouting report.
And don't forget this is Drummond's first tour around the Big East Conference. There is no reason for him to have a frame of reference or a relationship with Pope, a senior on a team Drummond has never met.
The bottom line is the Huskies aren't the basketball junkies you might think they are. They don't run back to their rooms at night to watch three or four – or even one – college game on television.
"I've seen one [Seton Hall] game when they played against some team I forgot – it was a Little League team kind of," guard Shabazz Napier said. "I barely watch TV. So I don't really follow anybody."
Napier, a sophomore, will recognize Pope from last year's meeting in Newark, won by UConn 61-59. But Pope fouled out after just 27 minutes – with six points and five rebounds. The Huskies will see an upgraded version Tuesday night. Pope is fourth in the Big East in scoring (18.6 points per game), second in the conference in rebounding (10.9) and a major reason why the Pirates off to such a great start.
"Right now, the way he's been playing, he's an All-Big East first team, right?" said associate head coach George Blaney, who completes his three-game stint replacing suspended head coach Jim Calhoun with this game against the team Blaney coached from 1994-97. "I'm really impressed with the defense he has been playing. He's hedging out great on the pick-and-roll. And he's stealing the ball on the pick and roll. He's always been a good rebounder. Obviously he has scoring talents. We're just going to have to be solid with him and make sure we keep him off the boards as much as we can."
In April 2010, Pope was hospitalized after collapsing during an on-campus workout. Coach Kevin Willard entered his first season at Seton Hall not knowing Pope's status for the majority of that summer. But Pope got back into basketball shape and averaged 9.8 points and 7.9 rebounds as a junior. He also blocked 38 shots.
Pope played well early last season, scoring in double figures in seven consecutive Big Eastgames. But his point production dropped off in the final nine games and he had to hit the weight room again to improve his stamina.
"This is probably one of the first times he's had a summer to work on his game," Willard said during an interview in August. "I'm looking forward to having a healthy Herb Pope."
Seton Hall, which received two points in Monday's Associated Press poll, has lost only to Northwestern and No. 1 Syracuse. The Pirates have victories over VCU, Saint Joe's, Dayton, Auburn, Wake Forest and West Virgnia.
Just as key to the Pirates' success has been the play of point guard Jordan Theodore, who is averaging 15.8 points. He has 98 assists and 34 turnovers – 2.88 ratio that ranks second in the Big East.
"Theodore has become a really, really good point guard," Blaney said. "From sort of a careless point guard, he's gotten to where he has a 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. He's really pushing it. He'll take it all the way or create for others and does a good job."
There might not be a lot of national hype for this Big East matchup, but in the latest RPI rankings UConn is No. 3 and Seton Hall is No. 4.
"I think the key was whether Theodore and Pope were going to change the way they played," Blaney said of the improvement the Pirates have made under Willard. "Once they changed the way they played, then all of a sudden they had talent. You need talent in this league.
"They're fourth in the RPI and that really impresses me."