TARRYTOWN, N.Y. — When Herb Pope, Jeremy Hazell and Jeff Robinson all said they would test the NBA waters in the wake of Bobby Gonzalez’s firing last month, the immediate future looked bleak for Seton Hall.
After all, those three players accounted for 44 points and 19 rebounds a game last season.
Yet a few weeks removed from those pronouncements, it now looks as if all three players could return to play for first-year coach Kevin Willard.
“Now that I know Coach Willard a little more, now I kind of feel obligated to give him the best chance of me coming back and really look at it,” Pope said Wednesday at the Metropolitan Basketball Writers Association awards banquet.
“He obviously wants me back. He’s excited about me and I’m excited about him. I love his style already and I like him as a person.”
The 6-foot-8 Pope was named to the All-Met Second Team after averaging 11.5 points and a Big East-best 10.7 rebounds.
In Seton Hall’s final game of the season — a first-round NIT loss to Texas Tech at the Prudential Center — Pope twice hit a Texas Tech player below the belt. He was ejected from the game, the Pirates lost badly and Gonzalez was fired the next day.
Pope, who has a young daughter back home in Aliquippa, Pa., said he hasn’t fully made up his mind about his future and will consult with several advisers, including Charles Smith, the former Knick who works with the National Basketball Players Association.
“I’m just sitting back waiting for the [May 8] deadline and make my final decision,” Pope said, referring to the date underclassmen can withdraw from the draft and return to campus without hiring an agent.
“It obviously would be better to come back and get an education and that’s the only thing that’s holding me back. I want to come back and finish school, but I want to be able to play at the next level. I want to pursue my dream.”
“I think if Herb wants to test the waters, I think that’s great for him,” Willard, who missed the awards dinner because he was out recruiting, told SNY last month. “Every kid wants to play in the NBA. If he thinks he can do it and has the ability…If he wants to take a chance and see how he is, obviously I”m all for it. I want every kid to be a millionaire and if he can do, I’m all for it.”
Like Pope, Hazell said he was undecided and somewhat conflicted about his future.
“Right now I’m undecided,” he said. “I’m leaning towards going but my second mind is going back to school, getting my degree and finishing up. I’m really undecided right now but I just hope everything works out for the best.”
An All-Met First-Team and All-Big East Second Team selection, Hazell averaged 20.4 points last season, third-best in the league.
“Definitely I think I’m ready for the NBA but it’s up in the air right now,” he said.
Like Pope, Hazell said he quickly grew comfortable with Willard and a staff that has ties to Seton Hall. Shaheen Holloway is a former Seton Hall standout and Steve Sauers worked under Gonzalez before taking a spot with Willard at Iona.
“Those two guys made me feel comfortable with the dude [Willard] so I’m ready now,” Hazell said.
The Pirates lost only fifth-year forward John Garcia and point guard Eugene “Nunu” Harvey to graduation. If Robinson, Pope and Hazell return, they would join guards Jordan Theodore and Keon Lawrence and forwards Ferrakohn Hall and Fuquan Edwin in the rotation (pending any transfers).
The 6-5 Edwin dropped 26 points in the Jordan Brand Regional Game Saturday night at MSG and remains Seton Hall’s lone signed recruit.
“I think he’s gonna help us a lot,” Hazell said. “We just gotta fit him into the flow and jell together. I think we’ll be alright.”
So how good could the Pirates be if Robinson, Pope and Hazell all return to campus?
“I think we could be a great team, all of us coming back with the new coaching in here,” Hazell said. “They’re doing a great job with us in the off-season, so I think we’ll be a great team, knowing that we got everybody coming back so I’m looking forward to it.”
(Photos courtesy Seton Hall Athletics)