There will never be another team like the 2023 SDSU men’s basketball team.
Through the traditional high school recruiting process, the transfer portal, or by extended careers brought on by a global pandemic, this kind of collection of players that make up this years squad can never be duplicate. Or so we pray to the WHO & CDC don’t allow it.
For the 2023 Mountain West regular and tournament champion Aztecs, they have become beloved in San Diego County not only for their success on the court, but their character off of it as well.
No player has become more beloved and appreciated by the San Diego State fanbase than Aguek Arop. His rise in Aztec lore is one of those feel good stories that you could make a movie from.
Born in South Sudan, Arop arrived in the United States as a child. He grew up playing basketball in Nebraska and became one of the best players in the state. At the early age of just 15 he committed to Nebraska, shutting down his recruitment from all others hoping to pursue.
As fate would have it Nebraska was over the scholarship limit for his class and was unable to follow through on his commitment. Former Cornhuskers coach Tim Miles asked him to go to a prep school and just like that, Aguek Arop was back on the market.
Without much of a choice Aguek dedicated himself to a prep school in Georgia, The Skill Factory. There he showcased his talents giving his name a much wider reach. San Diego State joined his recruitment soon and after a visit to America’s Finest City Aguek knew he had found a second home that he wanted to commit to with the Aztecs.
The Cornhuskers loss became one of the Aztecs biggest gains.
In my previous time as a writer, I was fortunate enough to have a good relationship with his coach during those years, Rob Johnson. He gave me access to film that was not widely available, but that showed how much of a special player Arop was. And boy could he do it all.
Arop could score from all three levels, handle the ball in transition, lock down defensively, and rebound the ball on both ends of the court. Arop’s film was some of the most complete I had seen at the time and I was dumbfounded how low his stock was and thus not more widely recruited.
Upon arriving to the Mesa, Arop was an immediate contributor to the team, averaging 14 minutes a game as a freshman. The future seemed bright, however injuries began to take a toll on his body.
During his freshman year he had hip surgery. His sophomore year—shoulder surgery. From that point he had missed several games due to a number of ailments. Still through it all, he was a constant contributor to the team with an immense amount of value when he was on the court.
His persona carried weight with all Aztec Nation, so much that his simple nickname of “AG” is affectionately and famously known by all who hear it.
AG was not supposed to be here this year. He participated in Senior Night last year with the intention of retiring from the game at the end of the season. Instead, he talked to Coach Brian Dutcher and decided to come back to give it one more try, with the staff managing his workload to keep him healthy.
The result has been his best season on the Mesa. Arop while playing in 33 games this year, the most in his Aztec career, also has career-highs in minutes (15.9 per game) points (4.6 per game) as well as modest increases in rebounds and assists. His value on the court has never been higher—to a team in a dominant program that up until this point in their history, has never been further.
Off the court after all the injuries and ailments, Arop faced a lot of self-doubt. He questioned whether he could continue playing and to what level of performance with it. Coach Dutcher and his teammates support helped him get through those dark times. The toughest times for any athlete to go though—not being able to contribute to the fullest for each other.
With limited practice time with the team through the season, Aguek felt the self-doubt of not pulling his weight with his teammates.
“It was a big hump to get over, because I didn’t know what my teammates would think. I didn’t want them to think I wasn’t all in. It was hard for me to get passed that.” Aguek shared on 760 AM San Diego Sports this season.
“Physically I knew I couldn’t do it everyday. There’s still a part of me mentally felt like I was cheating a little bit. Which is something I had to get over and accept. Once my teammates accepted it, it was all good … the rest was history.”
Life beyond basketball for Aguek is bright however. This past offseason he became a United States citizen, something that he had been trying to accomplish for a long time. A new found faith in his life has altered his way of seeing himself and the bigger picture of which he has come through after so many years of competing at such a high level in his formidable years.
“I really had my identity wrapped in basketball for a long time since I was a kid. Where (now) I met God and Jesus and having my identity restored in me. I think I need to just detach and step away and continue to grow into who I am and who I’m called to be. Basketball might be in the picture—I’m not completely closing it off.“
In the classroom he now is working on his masters in Homeland Security. Those are big accomplishments for a boy who left his home in South Sudan when he was one year old.
San Diego State fans have embraced Arop as he has become a fan favorite for both his hustle on the court and his perseverance off of it. While his career did not turn out the way many, including myself, envisioned it to be, AG has become a vital part of the Aztecs lineup.
The legacy that Aguek Arop has built in his time on the Mesa will not be forgotten and for this Aztec4Life, I confidently speak on behalf of all Aztec faithful when I say, we all hope AG finds a way to stick around the San Diego State program. The Montezuma Mesa will not be the same without him around.