Last year, he was riding charter planes to games at legendary venues like Cameron Indoor Stadium and Rupp Arena. This year, he’s riding buses to the Upper Peninsula in the middle of blizzards — and loving every minute of it.
According to sophomore transfer guard Harrison Niego, the transition to Division II basketball from a Big 10-Championship-winning Indiana University team has made him a better player and a better person — and it has certainly brought new drive and energy to the Hillsdale Charger men’s basketball team this season.
“Playing here at Hillsdale is great,” Niego said. “It’s been such a smooth transition to a new school and a new program. I’ve really been embraced by the players and the coaches.”
Niego originally chose Indiana University over scholarship offers from Hillsdale and at least seven Division I schools, several Ivy League colleges, and offers from numerous other Division II schools, according to John Tharp, Hillsdale’s men’s basketball coach.
“We recruited Harrison since his senior year of high school,” Tharp said. “He’s a talented basketball player and a bright student … He came to visit with his whole family — his parents and five brothers — when they were on vacation. We loved the whole family.”
Though Niego said Hillsdale was high on his list of possibilities from the beginning, the chance of playing for one of the top basketball programs in the country sent Niego to Indiana.
“I was looking for a program where I could play for something bigger than myself and where every game counted,” Niego said. “Eventually I turned them all down to walk on at Indiana. It was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.”
From the suburbs of Chicago, Niego did more than just claim a spot on the roster during his freshman year with the Hoosiers. He played in 25 games for a team that made it to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament, scoring 11 points and earning 15 rebounds throughout the season.
“We ended up winning the Big 10 championship, and we didn’t lose a game at home,” Niego said.
“I got to play in key games, and my role grew as the season went on. It was an awesome opportunity for a freshman walk-on. I just worked hard and there were some injuries, and I took advantage of a great opportunity.”
But with great opportunity comes great responsibility, at least according to Hoosier fans.
“At Indiana, basketball is 100 percent your job. It’s how you’re judged,” Niego said. “Indiana fans are the most passionate fans in the country, and that has its pros and cons. If you win, it’s great, but if you lose, you’re in the hot seat. It ends up balancing out, but that’s the culture: you win. That’s what you do.”
Tharp said he heard in the spring of Niego’s freshman year that, despite the excitement of Hoosier basketball culture, Niego was looking to move on.
“I was there for one season and then decided I wanted a change of scenery, but it was still an awesome experience,” Niego said. “I have zero regrets. I just wanted a change and some new options opened up.”
Those options included a meeting with Tharp, which convinced Niego to transfer to Hillsdale to play basketball and continue to pursue a degree in financial management for a future career in business.
“He’s fitting in well, though there are differences,” Tharp said. “He had to ask himself a little bit of the ‘What does it mean to play Division II at Hillsdale College?’ question. But he has no ego. He’s not saying, ‘I’m better than this.’ I think ‘unassuming’ would be the word for it.”
Though Niego said the transition was a smooth one, his teammates still knew there were differences between the two schools.
“He was really quiet at first,” said Jonathan Wilkinson, a sophomore shooting guard who met Niego while they were coaching a kids’ summer camp last June. “I think he was having culture shock in reverse, coming from a school of 50,000 to 1,400.”
Wilkinson said he has learned from Niego’s tenacity on the court.
“He’s just very crafty and very intelligent,” Wilkinson said. “He knows where to be on the court. And he works hard. He’s always staying after practice to shoot. You can make up for what you lack in athleticism by being intelligent. I picked that up from him.”
But in a new season at a new school, Niego is discovering that Indiana isn’t the only team that he can help to victory: he has moved on from Lyons Township High School, where he averaged over 15 points per game his senior season, to a season average of nearly 8 points per game at Hillsdale. In last Thursday’s long-awaited victory over Ashland, he scored 15.
Though playing at Hillsdale’s Dawn Potter arena isn’t quite the same as taking the court with the Hoosiers in front of a Duke Blue Devils crowd which literally rocked Cameron Indoor. Niego said Hillsdale’s basketball culture has a completely different focus.
“Coach Tharp makes you feel valued, and once I was here, I got to be a big part of the program,” Niego said. “Off the court, he makes you feel like part of the family. You can’t say that about all coaches. At Hillsdale, I have a bigger role, which forced me to grow into a better player. I also get to become a better person too, with all these amazing people, which is a huge, underrated part of all this. You just put yourself around people who are smarter than you, and good things happen.”
And that family is what Tharp has been sharing with Niego since the beginning of the recruitment process: “We just talked to him about what you do when the basketball is put away,” Tharp said. “We have a basketball family here, and not only that, but a whole Hillsdale College family. And he is a big part in accomplishing our goals as a team.”