Basketball

Rose-Hulman's Ryuji Aoki sets great example by excelling in classroom, on court

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

There are stereotypes in all walks of life, and student-athletes are often labeled as individuals who don’t or can’t focus on academics, too.

But nobody ever convinced Ryuji Aoki to stick to just one of those two tasks during his three distinguished academic years at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Indiana.

The Aichi Prefecture-born guard owns a 3.91 grade-point average. He studies biomedical engineering. Yet somehow he still found time to practice his jumper and review Rose-Hulman’s plans for its next opponent.

Impressive enough, Aoki is graduating in May, doing so in three years.

He didn’t stick to the typical academic blueprint: a four-year plan.

The 183-cm backcourt leader this month was recognized as a 2018-19 Google Cloud Academic All-American for NCAA Division III basketball. It is a 15-member All-American team. (There are more than 6,000 players in NCAA D-III basketball.)

“We preach about team success to our players, but one area that gives me joy to see our players achieve individual accolades is the combination of academics and athletics. For Ryuji to be named an Academic All-American, it is the highest honor a player can receive for their dedication and hard work both in the classroom and on the court,” said Rose-Hulman head coach Rusty Loyd. “In his three years at Rose-Hulman, he has been part of a conference championship team and been a leader amongst his teammates, but work ethic and ability to succeed in all areas of college life will truly be his legacy. Ryuji embodies all the attributes of a Rose-Hulman student-athlete, and I couldn’t be more happy for him to receive this distinction.”

The Rose-Hulman basketball squad posted a 17-9 record this season, and with another season in the books Aoki has cemented his legacy as a productive player for the Fightin’ Engineers. He is the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference school’s all-time leader in free-throw shooting accuracy (92.3 percent). He is No. 6 in 3-point field-goal shooting (40.3 percent) and 17th in 3-pointers made (95). He stepped onto the court in 64 Rose-Hulman games, making 22 starts and averaging 19.0 minutes. Aoki scored 7.9 points per game as a freshman in 2016-17, 10.0 ppg last season and 12.2 this season while starting in all 18 games that he appeared in.

During Aoki’s three years at the school, Rose-Hulman went 48-31 overall, including 39-15 in conference play. This season, Aoki had a career-best 25-point game against HCAC rival Franklin.

In an exclusive interview with The Japan Times this week, Aoki, who turned 21 earlier this month, admitted he’s “extremely thankful” to be chosen as an Academic All-American.

“I put a lot of effort into basketball as well as my academics,” Aoki said. “My former high school teammate, Jalen Brunson, who currently starts for the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA, taught me that what you do in the classroom reflects how you perform on the basketball court. He embraced that, and I think I was able to do that as well.

“I am tremendously blessed to be recognized for my efforts. There are many student-athletes that sacrifice and commit a lot of time and energy to their schools in terms of sports and academics, and I am proud to be recognized as one of those student-athletes.”

Aoki moved from Japan to Illinois when he was in second grade because his father, Moto, began a job near Chicago for a pharmaceutical company. He later attended Adlai E. Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Illinois, helping the school capture a Class 4A state title in 2015.

Perhaps the basketball gods played a role in shaping Aoki’s formative years. His family’s home “had a basketball hoop in the driveway,” the Herald News, a suburban Chicago newspaper, reported in 2016.

While he struggled to learn English in those early years in the United States, basketball became a common bond for Aoki and his classmates.

“I had that basketball hoop at my house and I had kids over every day to shoot hoops and that really helped,” Aoki was quoted as saying by the Daily Herald. “I made friends and I got better at basketball. I played all the time. I’m probably better at basketball because I grew up here instead of Japan.”

Even with his impressive academic achievements, Aoki’s love for basketball is a big part of his future plans.

“After graduating in May, I will be moving back to Japan in June,” Aoki told The Japan Times. “I want to pursue a professional career as a basketball player in the B. League. I am still looking for opportunities to play in the B. League, and hopefully, I can find a franchise where they can give me an opportunity to play, learn and grow as a player and a person. Playing basketball as an Asian player in the United States where the population of Asian basketball players is so small, it brought me to the highest and lowest points of my playing career. However, those experiences have made me a better player and I hope to be able to showcase that in Japan.

“Basketball is truly my passion. Playing professionally has been one of my goals since I got into college, and I have sacrificed and worked a lot to get to this point with the support and guidance of my friends and family, and current and former coaches and teammates. I will continue to work hard in the classroom, in the gym, and on the basketball court so that I can graduate and pursue my goals and dreams.”