Hispanics find home on USF basketball courts

South Florida Bulls forward Luis Santos has Dominican roots. Photo by Joe Petro/Icon Sportswire

When University of South Florida women's basketball coach Jose Fernandez notched his 300th career victory on Tuesday night, his was a triumph shared with the university he's called home since 2000.

“I’ve had the opportunity to coach a lot of really good players to get to 300,” Fernandez said after the game. “But also I wouldn’t be where I’m at today if it wasn’t for all the assistants. I’ve had a very good staff.”

Fernandez's milestone also represents the university's commitment in representing the diversity of the region. Tampa, Florida, the city that houses USF's campus, has a significant Hispanic population, with 23.1 percent of the residents identifying as such according to the last U.S. census. Since his promotion to head coach, the University of South Florida has been at the forefront when entrusting coaching positions to Latinos, as well as the recruiting of student-athletes, particularly in basketball.

Up until early January, USF was the only Division I program in the nation with both men's and women's hoops programs coached by Hispanics. While Fernandez has enjoyed continued, sustained success with the Bulls' women, Orlando Antigua was fired midway into his third season with the men, leaving the team with a 6-7 record in 2016-17 and accumulating a 23-55 record in his entire tenure. His firing left Miami's Jim Larrañaga and South Carolina's Frank Martin as the only Hispanic head coaches in Division I on the men's side. Over the weekend, Larrañaga won his 600th career game after Miami defeated Pittsburgh.

Though Antigua has since exited, a Hispanic presence lingers in the coaching staff. Assistant coach Sergio Rouco, himself a former collegiate head coach at FIU, as well as on the pro level in Venezuela and the Dominican Republic, is Cuban. Currently, the program boasts a total of seven Hispanic players on their combined rosters, a testament to the university's effort to recruit from a growing number of countries producing exceptional basketball talent.

There are four Hispanic players on the men's roster. Yito Alvarado, a freshman forward, is Puerto Rican. Brazil's Tulio da Silva, also a freshman, was named conference Rookie of the Week this season. Sophomore Luis Santos was born in the Bronx to Dominican parents and spent part of his childhood on the island. Seven-foot-tall Ruben Guerrero, is a junior who hails from Marbella, Spain. In December, Guerrero was presented with the NCAA Division I Male Sportsmanship Award on Hispanic Heritage Night, a night in which Antigua and Martin faced off on opposing benches.

On the women's side, Nachalie De Jesus, a junior from Puerto Rico, and Spanish duo Ariadna Pujol, a senior, and Laia Flores, a junior, anchor a roster with players hailing from Denmark, Portugal, Hungary, Latvia and Kenya -- in addition to the United States. Earlier this season, Flores set the program record with 17 assists in a single game, as the Bulls routed FIU 91-41. Both she and Pujol are part of Spain's national team, while De Jesus, a transfer from Miami Dade College, has been selected to represent her native Puerto Rico.

Sitting at 15-2 in 2016-17, the Bulls are ranked 22nd in RPI. The AP lists them as the 23rd best team in the nation, while the USA Today Coaches Poll situates them in 22nd. Under Fernandez, the team has enjoyed 12 postseason berths including four trips to the NCAA tournament, (the only coach ever to do so), all achieved in his latest 13 seasons at the helm. In 2009, he won his first WNIT with the Bulls, and later became the winningest coach in the tournament's history.

It's even evident in other sports within the USF umbrella. Auggie Sanchez, a junior on the Bulls' football team, has caught the attention of pro scouts following back-to-back seasons with more than 110 tackles at middle linebacker.

From 2006 to 2014, Cuban-born Lelo Prado guided USF's baseball program, becoming the first Hispanic to hold that position for the school in the process. Under Prado, pitcher Dan Otero, also a Cuban-American, was drafted by the San Francisco Giants and went on to win the 2012 World Series team with the NL West squad.

Though it's impossible to predict whether the university will expand or even continue offering chances to Hispanic coaches and student-athletes in the future, it's likely that mainstays like Fernandez will continue carving out history.

As his star Spanish guard, Laia Flores, succinctly put it in the tribute video USF produced for Fernandez: “I love being part of your team, and I'm ready for the 350 wins.”