Mitch Henderson is a Princeton University graduate who was taught by internationally renowned professors and played college basketball under Pete Carril, one of the most unique human beings ever to grace New Jersey.
So it says a lot about Richmond Aririguzoh when the Tigers head coach says, “I’ve never been around anyone quite like him.”
That could mean a lot of different things; but in this case, it’s all good. Henderson is so enamored with his 6-foot-9 senior center, that when a message was left for him to call back for an interview about Aririguzoh, he responded in less than two minutes.
“You picked the right subject to talk about,” the coach said.
The reasons are many. First and foremost, the Ewing product is one of the Ivy League’s top players. As a junior he earned second-team All-Ivy recognition after averaging 12.1 points and 6.4 rebounds per game. This season, through the end of January, he was averaging 13.7 points, 8.7 rebounds and a 61.5 field goal percentage.
These numbers come on the heels of a freshman season during which he watched and learned as the Tigers won the Ivy League title, and a sophomore year in which he averaged just 9.1 minutes per game and learned even more after the season ended.
“We had a tough year; he and I sat down in my office, we had a very direct conversation,” Henderson said. “It was about being good at both school and basketball, and ‘Here’s where I think your priorities lie.’ Generally there’s pushback in those moments. It’s not an easy thing to hear that it’s on you now and we want you to take this step forward. Often, kids think ‘What about the other guys?’”
Aririguzoh had not such thoughts.
“Richmond processed it, understood that this is how he learns and he responded, full speed ahead,” Henderson continued. “There was no questioning in his mind, it was ‘OK, this is what I’m gonna do.’ Every team we play, their head coach says, ‘He’s the focal point of every defensive philosophy.’ And at the same time, he makes all of us better players and coaches and people because he’s so willing to improve and take coaching and admit his mistakes.”
The Trenton Catholic Academy graduate responded with last year’s breakthrough season, but knew he had to be even better this year since the young Tigers have had some games in which two freshmen and two sophomores have started. Aririguzoh realizes a lot falls on him.
“I felt it was more important for me to be able to assert myself so I can be somebody we can rely on, especially as these young guys get used to playing Division I games against tough opponents,” Aririguzoh said. “I think down the stretch, as we grow as a team there will be times somebody else can be that guy. For now, I had to start the season very strong, especially since we have such a young team.”
He has done just that in both his performance and intangibles.
“For me, the most important thing is stay level-headed, grow myself and help this team grow as we grow together,” Aririguzoh said. “It’s been going well for me, I’m grateful. I’ve had bad games, like at Indiana. But the team played well. I think we’re learning how to play with each other and learning how to win together.”
Neither Henderson or Aririguzoh were concerned over Princeton’s 1-7 start, as the Tigers’ main concern was to develop cohesiveness and chemistry when the Ivy started on Jan. 4. Since their slow start, as of Jan. 31, the team had gone 6-1 and won 4 straight.
Aririguzoh would love nothing more than to go out a champ after experiencing the Tigers run to the NCAA tournament as a freshman.
It didn’t matter to Aririguzoh that he barely played that year.
“I just thought I wasn’t ready,” he said. “It was a very senior-laden team, they had all the pieces. I was able to observe from the seniors what leadership means. I think that was really good for me to use that freshman year and see what it was all about. It was an incredible ride, going 16-0 and going to the tournament.”
Aririguzoh’s life has been a pretty interesting ride. His parents are from Nigeria and eventually settled in the Veneto region of Italy, where Richmond and his two brothers were born. Basketball was played, but not like here.
“We grew up in a very quaint town, about 45 minutes away from Venice,” Aririguzoh said. “The closet big city was Padua, so my town didn’t even have a high school. It was a really small town, very close knit. I have really fond memories. Everybody was really into soccer, I played basketball a little bit my final four years there for a team not in the town.”
The family moved to Ewing when Aririguzoh was 12 but lived in a rough area near the Trenton border, so his mom was reticent about letting her sons go to the nearby park to play. Aririguzoh began playing American basketball when he attended middle school at the since-closed down Incarnation St. James.
“It was definitely a different atmosphere when I got to the United States,” Aririguzoh said. “Basketball was still very much almost a hobby, something I very much liked to do. But then people saw potential in me because of my size, they exposed me to the game a lot more and from there the passion actually developed and the idea I could go somewhere with it developed.”
Aririguzoh headed for TCA after his older brother, Franklin, went to Notre Dame. Franklin went on to run track and continued with that sport at Princeton. Richmond did both basketball and track at TCA and qualified for the Meet of Champions, but said “I liked track, but I think track didn’t like me. Three of the four years I ended up with a season-ending injury in track. Nothing serious, but it always ended my season.”
In basketball he helped the Iron Mikes to several Mercer County Tournament titles along with teammate Myles Powell, who is now one of the nation’s top players at Seton Hall.
“He’s one of the better teammates I’ve ever had,” Aririguzoh said.
Powell always had a basketball career in mind while Aririguzoh’s desire slowly developed. When it came time for college, he did not want to follow in Franklin’s footsteps but, when it came down to a combination of academics and basketball, none of his choices could beat Princeton.
Henderson was happy to land the big man, but knew he was a work in progress.
“Like a lot of younger guys there was just a lot he didn’t know,” the coach said. “The work ethic, the willingness was always there, even in high school. But he just hadn’t played a lot of basketball. It was no surprise to anybody here how much he improved. It’s time spent working on your craft.
“We tell guys, ‘This is what you need to work on, this is what you’re not doing well, this is what you’re doing well.’ Richmond processed those things his own way. He made it all his own. All the work he had to do, he just did it. That is such an unusual quality. He says to himself ‘Here’s what I need to get better.’ He walks in the gym and he’s just so purposeful. I’ve literally never seen him walk into the gym looking tired and not ready.”
With the help of the famed Princeton offensive system, which creates plenty of open shots, Aririguzoh has become a deadly shooter. Despite taking just 52 shots as a sophomore, he made 31 for a 59.6 percentage. Last year he hit 122 of 176 (69.3) and through seven games this year he was 41-for-71 (57.7).
“Coach Henderson does a really good job of putting people in position when they can succeed,” Aririguzoh said. “Once he saw I had the potential to be a decent post player, he started incorporating me into the offense. He always told me to get lay-ups. Even last year through the Ivy League season, there were very few hook shots or jump shots. It was at the rim. We worked on the footwork, the finishing, how to put yourself in that position, and then my teammates obviously gave me the ball last year and this year so they depend on me and I make sure I do my best for them.”
Aririguzoh has improved himself so much over four seasons that Henderson feels he can play at the next level once he graduates with a degree in ecology and evolutionary biology. Aririguzoh is also busy working on a senior thesis concerning how human influences affect lemurs in Madagascar. He is going to take a year off before pursuing a masters degree in public health. Whether he uses that year to play some kind of professional ball remains to be seen.
“I think he can do whatever he wants,” Henderson said. “I’d want him to be my doctor. I think his goals right now are very present. Right now when he comes on to the floor it’s about his team, it’s about being a captain and being a leader. Those are his immediate goals.”
Goals that he has been well on his way to accomplishing over the past two seasons.