At SDSU, Aguek Arop has left angels in his wake
Section L inside Viejas Arena is reserved for The Show.
Every home game, the first ten rows are filled to the brim with the most fanatical of SDSU’s student section. For the entire contest, they sing, dance, and chant as they cheer on the Aztecs.
It is this group that wields the big heads when the opposition shoots free throws and sets the tone for the entire arena. Sitting while the action plays out on Steve Fisher Court is one of their cardinal sins. Throughout a contest, they hold up a sign reading “stand up” to implore the students behind them to participate as enthusiastically as those in the roll-away stands closest to the floor.
On Tuesday night, the party that started on the concrete behind the basket rose to the seats without chairbacks at the top of the seating bowl because in row 11 was a group of shirtless young men sporting halos and angel wings. They, too, never sat, and their enthusiasm acted as a conduit to carry the energy from the front of section L to the back.
“We are Aguek (Arop)’s Angels,” SDSU senior Patrick Harris Ritter said during halftime on Tuesday, describing the ensemble, who each sported a letter on their torso spelling A-G-U-E-K A-R-O-P.
When Arop first arrived on the Mesa in 2018, the moniker “AG” was kindly provided to ease the trouble fans had in pronouncing his name. Five years later, he is a household name in San Diego known affectionately as “Aguek” or “Arop” or the still familiar “AG.”
If his angels had switched seats messing up the spelling of their design, the gathered throng of 12,414 would doubtless have spotted the error.
“I noticed them with 20 minutes left before the game,” Arop told EVT in an exclusive interview. “Seeing them up there all decked out, going all out just for me, letting me know that I’m loved by them, it’s hard to describe, but I’m just extremely appreciative that they’d do that for me. It makes it a lot easier to play at home. It makes it more fun, and I have to (play well).”
The presence of Aguek’s Angels on Tuesday night opened a window to AG’s life off the court. His impact there as a student at San Diego State has been just as profound as anything he has done with the basketball team.
During quarantine, Ritter was in what he described as a “Covid slump.” It was during this time that he first connected with Arop. They became fast friends, with their relationship built around their common faith. SDSU’s power forward lifted Ritter out of his emotional funk.
“Aguek is one of my best friends,” Ritter explained. “I lived with him last year. He’s just a real brother in Christ to me. We’ve just grown a lot in friendship, so I just want to come out here and support him. Everyone here with me, we all go to church together at Aztec Catholic in the Newman Center. Aguek was actually a president there. I was one of his successors. He’s done a lot for me, been a big role model in my life, and been a friend when I needed friendship. He was also one of the guys that got me out of my Covid slump, so I owe a lot to the guy, so we are all here. We all just love him.”
Arop reciprocates the feeling.
“Really getting out and making new friends outside of basketball, making new connections, especially with my faith, that’s honestly what’s gotten me through the past few years, got me through all the challenges,” Arop said about his friends. “Once I made time, it was a lot easier to keep making time because they were helping me grow as a human being. I know they say I impacted them, but I think they impacted me even more. ”
[wpedon id=”49075″ align=”right”]
Playing at SDSU
As one of the money-making sports, college basketball has increasingly become a business. Succumbing to the internal and external pressure to win, college coaches at some universities treat their players as objects used to reach the ultimate prize.
Against that backdrop, head coach Brian Dutcher’s patience with Arop’s health challenges has stood out. Many teams would have pushed someone unable to consistently see the court out of their program. Certainly, Dutcher would have been justified in not extending a scholarship this past offseason to allow Arop to come back for a second senior season.
While SDSU’s head coach’s character stands out among his peers in treating people with respect, people like Arop do not come around very often. Dutcher was wise to partner with him as long as possible. With what he does for the culture and chemistry of the team, Arop is worth three scholarships.
“He’s a credit to his parents that raised him the right way,” Dutcher said following Tuesday’s victory. “He’s heavily involved with the church on campus. He makes a difference in a lot of people’s lives, not just on the court but on the campus. We’re so proud of AG and what he’s meant to our program and San Diego State University as a whole.”
Like a wake from a boat, every person leaves a legacy in their life. On one side of the wake is the people one comes in contact with, and on the other is the impact one has on life’s endeavors. Arop’s relational wake as a student-athlete is astounding. Long after he leaves, the ripples of his presence will still be felt.
Blessed with better health this year, the basketball portion of his wake is also solidifying. Aztec nation is seeing the best version of the Nebraskan to date. Tuesday’s contest provided illuminating examples of what he has been doing all season.
SDSU’s offensive struggles from its previous game against Fresno State continued at the start of its game against Colorado State. Starting center Nathan Mensah picked up his second foul with 17:01 left in the first half. The score was just 3-3. Jaedon LeDee replaced Mensah, but the offense continued to scuffle.
At the 13:26 mark, with the score 10-6, Arop checked into the contest, and the stagnant attack, along with Viejas Arena and Aguek’s Angels, came to life. Over the next seven minutes of game time, the Aztecs would spurt out ahead by nine while scoring 150% more points than they had up to that point.
Arop had six of SDSU’s 15 points during the stretch, including a fantastic fake, spin, and dunk on a designed play out of a media timeout. Except for their center, the Rams switched on all ball screens. Dutcher anticipated that Arop could exploit the tactic. Darrion Trammell inbounded the ball to Arop on the baseline. Trammell came onto the court, crossing in front of Arop. With a clever deception, Arop duped the Rams to double the Aztecs’ point guard before spinning and throwing down a ferocious dunk.
Dutcher gave Arop a breather with 6:20 left and SDSU up nine. He returned 2:57 later, and the Aztec lead had grown by just one. They closed the half on an 8-3 run culminating in Arop hitting a pair of free throws after a steal. In the nine minutes and 31 seconds of the first half with Arop on the bench, SDSU had 17 possessions and scored 18 points. With him on the court, it had 23 points on 17 possessions. While the difference might not sound staggering, in terms of Kenpom’s Adjusted Offensive Efficiency, SDSU had a 105.8 without him and 135.3 with him. Those numbers over an entire season would rank 169th and first, respectively, in the nation.
“He’s killing it out there,” Ritter said, giving his assessment at the intermission. “He’s the heart of the team. He just plays so hard in everything he does. And, especially on the court, he just tries to do it well and give it his best effort. That’s what we’re seeing tonight.”
What makes Aguek Arop special
A player averaging 4.5 points, 2.5 rebounds a game, and 0.8 assists will not catch the attention of outsiders. Aztec nation, however, knows how much better the team is when #33 is creating havoc on the hardwood.
AG has scored in double-figures just six times in his career, but his impact feels the same as if he averaged double figures. The quality of his work stands out far above the quantity others put out. He simply makes the play that is needed at the right moment. He is a winner.
“AG’s energy is great every night,” LeDee said postgame. “When I’m out there with AG, I love playing with him. He gives me energy to go. He’s out there doing all the things that may not come in the box score, but it makes us great.”
On his first possession of the second half Tuesday, Arop grabbed an offensive rebound off a Micah Parrish missed three, giving his teammate a second opportunity. Parrish was true on the attempt Arop provided. It was Arop’s only rebound of the second frame, and it was the dagger that put Colorado State to rest.
“We always miss AG,” said Dutcher when asked on Thursday what impact Arop not playing had on the loss to New Mexico in the first matchup. “Hopefully, having AG back (on Saturday) will give us some veteran experience on the road.”
Arop’s aptness, his ability to act at the most opportune moments is what makes him special for the Aztecs. Remarkably, he possesses this same quality in his private life.
Arop started going Aztec Catholic at Newman Center about a month before Covid broke out. It was there that he met Ritter. They exchanged numbers but did not fully connect until months into the lockdown. AG reached out multiple times by phone without a response. After the third or fourth call, he waited to leave a message and heard the recorded voice of a woman.
Months earlier, Ridder’s phone was broken, and he had given Arop his mother’s phone number. Arop’s persistence at that perfect time helped raise Ridder out of his Covid slump, and it initiated a friendship that both said will last a lifetime.
“It’s really just a grace from God,” Arop said when asked about this quality. “It’s something I’ve always had since I was young. I’ve had a different mindset. I really cherish people. I try to make people know that they’re seen, known, and loved. I try to do that and not judge because I’m imperfect myself.”
“If I can just be a smiling face, a helping hand, and whatever is needed, I just try to do that the best I can. I know I am not perfect, but I do make the effort. That’s the only thing I can credit it to, the grace of God and having a big heart. I love watching other people succeed.”
With just a few contests left in his college career, Arop is lasered in on each game. He is the rare individual who can truly appreciate a moment while living it. He is driven by the opportunity to win another conference championship, especially with the transfers who left other schools for the chance to put a banner in the Viejas Arena rafters.
The Mad House on the Mesa has just one more in-person opportunity left to watch one of the most unique players in school history. On March 4, Arop will hold up his framed jersey at center court as Aztec Nation says its “goodbye” on Senior Night.
His wake though will continue flowing in Dutcher’s program and in the lives of the people he connected with at SDSU long after he is gone.
My earliest sport’s memory involve tailgating at the Murph, running down the circular exit ramps, and seeing the Padres, Chargers and Aztecs play. As a second generation Aztec, I am passionate about all things SDSU. Other interests include raising my four children, being a great husband and teaching high school.
After the game Arop came out of the locker room in his uniform into the lower hallway of Viejas to meet with the fans who had spelled out his name. It was so obvious to anyone that saw it that we were seeing a wonderfully genuine and likable person whose joyfulness was contagious.
There’s a great picture of all of them and the Show Grandmas on Twitter.