SI.com's Breakout Senior team is composed of players who've taken on bigger roles and made significant, unexpected gains in efficiency in the early stage of their final seasons. Seniors such as Missouri's Marcus Denmon, Marquette's Jae Crowder or Virginia's Mike Scott, who are getting attention on breakout teams, were excluded, because their previous stat-lines suggested stardom was on the horizon. The surges made by this quintet required some explanation.
1. Herb Pope, PF, Seton Hall
Pope was a big-time recruit out of Aliquippa, Pa., who had a disastrous college career up until this fall. He has scars from being shot four times in the spring before his freshman year at New Mexico State; he was charged with a DUI after passing out behind the wheel of a car in Las Cruces; and he later transferred into Bobby Gonzalez's house of dysfunction (Seton Hall). Pope's sophomore year there concluded with him punching a player in the crotch during an NIT game. The spring before his junior year, he collapsed and nearly died due to a rare arterial disorder, and although he returned to play 30 games, he was limited by the time he spent in recovery. "There were things I wanted to do on the floor, that I just couldn't do physically, and that took a major toll on me mentally," he said. "That really brought me down."
This summer, Pope spent seven weeks training with John Lucas in Houston; Lucas' pitch to Pope, he said, "was that I needed to find myself again." He tried to think -- and play -- like the dominant forward he once was, and proclaimed at Big East media day that his goal was to be the league's Player of the Year, which seemed like a reach for someone who averaged 9.8 points and 7.8 rebounds as a junior. Yet he's now posted double-doubles in seven of the Pirates' nine games, including 26 and 14 in a win over Wake Forest on Saturday.
In addition to being better-conditioned physically and mentally (Pope said he regularly consults with a therapist this year, with the goal of staying positive), he's thriving because he is, for the first time, Seton Hall's centerpiece. Jeremy Hazell took 29.5 percent of the Pirates' shots last year and 31.6 percent the year before, but now, Pope said, "Coach [Kevin] Willard has made it clear that this is my team -- that I'm the focal point, and that I don't need to be hunting shots."
Senior point guard Jordan Theodore has focused on feeding Pope the ball, and he's taking a massive 34.5 percent of the Pirates' shots with a career-high efficiency rating (117.5). Seton Hall has never needed Pope more than it does now, and he has responded.
2. Henry Sims, C, Georgetown
In the Hoyas' season-opening win over Savannah State, Sims scored 19 points, grabbed six rebounds and dished out five assists -- despite barely being mentioned in the Tigers' scouting report. "I didn't expect Sims to do much, based on what he's done in the past," Savannah State coach Horace Broadnax said of the center who averaged 3.6 points and 3.2 rebounds as a junior. "But the past don't dictate the future."
Why did this happen, though, and why has the 6-foot-10 Sims stayed on this torrid pace? Until this year, he'd been a career backup to Greg Monroe and Julian Vaughn, providing more off-court comic relief to the program than did on-court production. (Case in point: Sims' signature moment last season was his failed run at student body vice president.) Coach John Thompson III said Sims' surge is in part about buckling down. "Henry has taken his game a lot more seriously, and his new role a lot more seriously," Thompson said. "In the past he was a fallback option, but this year he has to produce."
Thompson also said the NBA lockout may have been a blessing for Sims, because it kept ex-Hoyas such as Roy Hibbert and Jeff Green around the team, providing daily examples of the work ethic required to be a pro. Sims did not close his junior season well -- five of his final seven offensive possessions resulted in turnovers, and he looked like a careless passer and unconfident finisher around the rim.
As a senior, he's more assertive in the post, is a threat to dribble-drive on opposing centers from the top of the key, and his playmaking skills from the elbow position in the Hoyas' hybrid-Princeton offense have vastly improved. Sims' has a team-high (by far) assist rate of 33.0 percent, and he's the only player over 6-4 in the top 75 of the national assist rate standings. He has, thus far, been the best playmaking big man in the country -- a development that not even Thompson could see coming. "I don't want to talk about it too much," he said, "because I don't want to jinx anything."
3. Kim English, SG, Missouri
Last week's column from the Jimmy V Classic looked at the change in Mizzou guards' usage patterns from 2010-11 to this season. As I wrote then, "The next step in unlocking the Tigers' offensive firepower was to turn [Marcus] Denmon and English into heavily dribble-free operators. ... English's catch-and-shoot percentage has jumped from 50 percent as a junior to 62.5 percent as a senior.
That's an important change, because English is a sniper when he gets good looks on catch-and-shoots. He's averaging 1.675 points per possession in those situations this year, which ranks third nationally among players with at least 30 catch-and-shoot possessions in Synergy Sports Technology's database. His overall efficiency has skyrocketed as a result. As a junior he had a less-defined role in the Tigers' offense -- and didn't have Phil Pressey in a primary point guard role, creating open looks the way he's done early in '11-12.
4. Brian Conklin, PF, St. Louis
Until this year, Conklin was more of an academic achiever -- he's twice been named to the A-10's All-Academic team, and is pursuing a master's in business administration after already earning his undergrad degree in finance -- than a basketball star. But he's grown into a bruising power forward with excellent touch around the basket and from the free-throw line, and has been the key factor in the Billikens' 9-1 start.
Conklin's offseason focus on improving his free-throw shooting (he reportedly took 3,000 attempts from the stripe) has paid off, as his accuracy has improved by 24.5 percentage points. He's also getting to the line at a much higher rate -- his free-throw rate has jumped to 71.4 -- and his scoring average has nearly doubled as a result.
5. Donte Poole, SG, Murray State
Poole (who took the rarely traveled route from Las Vegas high school stardom, to a Georgia prep school, to the Ohio Valley Conference) has been the shooting star behind the Racers' run to 10-0. Not only did he go 6-of-8 on threes in their semi-upset of Memphis at FedEx Forum, but his overall three-point and free-throw percentages have seen significant jumps as senior. It took him four years to refine his shooting stroke, and he now has the offensive profile of a valuable long-range gunner. (His most similar comparison on kenpom.com is Illinois' Sam Maniscalco, the transfer from Bradley who's been invaluable in the Illini's 10-0 start.)
The key to Murray State's defense being respectable has been its turnover creation, as it ranks 30th nationally in that category -- and Poole has been its primary thief. Despite playing nearly double the minutes he did as junior, his steal percentage has jumped from 2.5 to 4.7, which ranks 41st nationally. It seems that when Poole's shot is falling, he's also inspired to play better D.