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Arikawe’s unique path to Denton paying dividends for men’s basketball

Arikawe’s unique path to Denton paying dividends for men’s basketball

January 31
16:59 2018

A 14-year-old Tope Arikawe only ever knew one position in his life. That was at striker on the soccer field, the same position his idol, Thierry Henry, played when he watched Arsenal matches as a kid.

“I was fast. I was big. I was unstoppable,” Arikawe said with a laugh.

Arikawe was so physically imposing that one coach could not keep his eyes off of him and his potential. Lagos, Nigeria was home to the Pepsi Football Academy, and coaches were always courting the talented young players.

A coach approached Arikawe about honing his skills and using his huge frame to his advantage — but not on the soccer pitch. Instead, he wanted to transition Arikawe into basketball.

“[He said] ‘Hey you have the height, why don’t you try playing basketball?’” Arikawe said. “I’m like ‘Uh, I don’t really like basketball, it kinda looks stupid. I’ll just stick to soccer.’”

After more begging by the coach, he eventually gave it a try. To his surprise, he did end up liking it, and his size advantage paid off on the court.

Before long, Arikawe was on his way to Atlanta, Georgia on an athletic scholarship to play basketball for Covenant Christian High School. In his senior season there, Arikawe averaged 13.8 points and eight rebounds and was ranked as the No. 16 Nigerian player in the United States for the class of 2015 by teamnigeria.com.

By this time, Arikawe was standing at 6 feet 8 inches tall and weighed 220 pounds while being cut and strong enough to out muscle almost any of his opponents.

He signed with Troy University out of high school, but after not qualifying academically, he went the junior college route and enrolled at Panola College in Carthage, Texas. It was an experience he used to shape his game and raise the level of competition.

“I liked the coaching staff,” Arikawe said. “The people over there were [nice], and we had a really good season. It helped me transition from high school. I got to play against other good college players, and it helped me for [future] games, so it was a really [important] step.”

As always, North Texas head coach Grant McCasland and his staff used their connections at the junior college ranks to search for a big man who could come in and play as an upperclassman. And before long, Arikawe was on the move again. This time to Denton.

“He was a really good scorer on the block,” McCasland said of Arikawe’s play at Panola. “They played through him a lot, but an area he needed to improve was rebounding. We just loved his motor, though, and he has a feel for the game.”

Initially, Arikawe was caught off guard by the speed at the Division I level. In practices, McCasland and his staff were constantly on Arikawe, reminding him of details and emphasizing rebounding and communication.

As a result, Arikawe struggled to find much playing time early in the season. But he stayed attentive, learning from the coaches and his fellow teammates.

“It’s been an up and down [season] for me,” Arikawe said. “I’m beginning to find that balance right now, and I’ll just go from there and keep working hard.”

Recently, Arikawe started his first game of the season, and his minutes per game have been on a steady incline. In Saturday’s win against Florida International University, Arikawe led all forwards in minutes played (26).

Tope Arikawe is a junior playing forward for UNT’s men’s basketball team. Arikawe is originally from Lagos, Nigeria. TJ Webb

His improvement has been apparent to his teammates after practicing with him since early in the fall.

“His confidence in practice is improving,” sophomore guard Roosevelt Smart said. “He knows what he has to do on both ends of the floor so it translates to the game.”

With him never playing or watching organized basketball before the age of 14, the game might not come as naturally to Arikawe as his native sport of soccer. If one thing is for certain though, he gives McCasland all of the effort necessary to help the team.

“The pace of the game being sped up and having to learn a whole new system was hard initially,” McCasland said. “He couldn’t play as hard as he wanted to because he was trying to figure out where he needed to be all the time. He’s one of those guys that when he’s comfortable, he’s extremely effective. And as a player, he’s just worked hard, he’s had some struggles but he’s definitely coming on at the right time.”

His impact on the court is seen in numerous facets throughout a game, and he continues to grow in his role off the bench. Arikawe leads the team in rebounds and blocks per 40 minutes and is second on the team in points per 40 minutes in conference play.

“[He brings] that physical presence we need,” Smart said. “He’s a good screener and on the defensive end he rebounds the ball and can be physical with the other bigs.”

Arikawe’s basketball journey began with a coach trying to get the best out of a stubborn striker. Now at North Texas, McCasland is trying to do the same thing with the Nigerian native on the hardwood.

As he continues to impress and accumulate playing time, Arikawe’s decision to play that ‘stupid’ sport is certainly paying off.

“Coach Mac set expectations [for me], and I have to work hard to meet those,” Arikawe said. “[This year] is me doing what coach Mac wants and just helping the team win.”

Featured Image: North Texas junior forward Tope Arikawe shoots the ball in a conference match against Florida Atlantic University on Jan. 25 at the Super Pit. The Mean Green defeated FAU 59-53. Sara Carpenter

About Author

Matthew Brune

Matthew Brune

Matthew Brune is the Senior Sports Writer for the North Texas Daily, covering football and men's basketball.

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