For many years, Latinos were few and far between in basketball. That began to change at the NBA level in the early 2000's, and it didn't take long for college basketball to follow suit. Today, Hispanic's have fully entrenched themselves on the college hardwood, especially at the Division-I level. And now that it's tournament time on the college schedule, here are the Latino players who have been making headlines this season.
Southern Illinois senior guard Mike Rodriguez
This Boston native didn't take the traditional path to college stardom. The 22-year-old, whose family roots come from both Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, began his college career at Marshalltown Community College in Iowa before transferring to Southern Illinois. Last season - his first in Carbondale, Illinois - Rodriguez was named to the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) All-Newcomer Team. He scored in double figures in 15 of the 32 games he played in and ranked 10th in the MVC in assists per game (2.9).
This year the 5-foot-9-inch point guard leads the Salukis in scoring with 12.9 points per game, which puts him 12th in the conference. He also leads his squad in minutes per game (32.6), assists per game (4.0), and steals per game (1.4). As good as he is on the court, basketball wasn't Rodriguez's initial sport of choice.
"I started out playing baseball, I loved baseball. I pictured myself in the MLB (Major League Baseball) from ages 4 to 16. I had to give up one sport, so I dropped baseball. I couldn't wait for the summer time anymore. My team would practice in the basketball gym during the winter so I used to stay after practice and I just fell in love with basketball," Rodriguez tells NBC.
Rodriguez is in a unique position because the Missouri Valley Conference doesn't produce many Latino athletes. It's something that he doesn't take for granted.
"It's truly a blessing knowing that you're one of a kind out there and that you represent several Spanish- speaking countries and to see how many kids from both the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico constantly hit me up on social media to ask me 'how do you jump so high?' or 'How can I improve my game?' It just is a real blessing how I can help affect Latin basketball," he says.
Seton Hall junior forward Desi Rodriguez
At just 20 years of age, Rodriguez is leading the effort to give the Pirates back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances for the first time since 1993 and 1994. Born in the Bronx section of New York, Rodriguez, who is "Spanish on my mother's side," is considered among the top 10 players in the Big East Conference.
"When you're named in those kind of categories, you know you're doing something good," he says.
He definitely makes his case by averaging 16 points per game which puts him second on the team, and fourth in the Big East. Listed at 6-foot-6, Rodriguez can play in the post and shoot jump shots with the best of them. He has eight 20-point games and even one 30-point game on his resume this season. An NBA future looks possible for Rodriguez.
"(The NBA) is my main goal, I just have to keep playing the way I'm playing and hopefully, I'll get there," said Rodriguez.
Seton Hall junior forward/center Angel Delgado
Standing side-by-side with Rodriguez on a nightly basis is this Dominican-born big man. Listed at 6-foot-10 and 240 pounds, Delgado is one of the most physically imposing players in the Big East. Averaging a double-double every game (15 points and 13 rebounds), the 22-year-old ranks third on his team in the scoring department (sixth in the conference), and leads both his team and the conference on the rebounding end.
Delgado is a throwback to what his position used to be: a dominant force in the paint who imposes his will at both ends of the floor. Should he choose to enter the NBA draft his year, he would be among the top players taken at his position.
"It's really great because I came from a tough spot," says Delgado about his success. "It's tough to come here and do what I'm doing right now. I'm proud and my family is proud of me too," he added.
Both men also understand they are playing a role in changing stereotypes of Latino athletes.
"It feels great just to know there's a lot of Latino talent out there competing," says Rodriguez. "There's a lot of guys right now that are trying to make the NBA to represent their country and the Latino family," added Delgado.
Duquesne junior guard Rene Castro
Not every player in the NCAA can be a starter. Some players make headlines by contributing off the bench, and Castro is somebody who does just that. His 7.1 points and 2.1 assists per game give the Dukes some offense during the middle stages of the game when the starters need a breather. And Castro embraces his role with the team.
"I think it's a great opportunity, (playing Division-I basketball) has been a dream of mine since I was 9 or 10 years old," Castro says.
The 23-year-old reserve point guard was born in Boston, but his parents came to the United States from Honduras. Castro pride proudly displays his heritage with a body tattoo of the Central American country's coat of arms.
"Both of my parents are from Honduras, it means a lot to me. I have the Honduras emblem tatted on my stomach. The culture means a lot to me and I try to represent it well," he tells NBC.
Castro is also proud to be one of the many Hispanic athletes who are transcending and changing the sports landscape.
"I think it's a great thing to play other sports like basketball and hockey, it does well for our community and we don't get noticed as much as other communities as we're starting to branch out," he said.
South Florida junior center Ruben Guerrero and sophomore forward Luis Santos
Down in Tampa, a couple of young guns are creating what could be one of the top frontcourts in college basketball next season. Together Guerrero and Santos average a combined 11.5 points and 9.3 rebounds per game. Not exactly the wonder twins, but they're definitely laying the ground work for something bigger.
"(Playing in the NBA) is the goal," Guerrero said. "That's something that I will love to do one day, and that's what I'm working for."
Santos is from New York but was born to a Dominican mother, although he did live in the Dominican Republic for a time according to his bio on the South Florida Bulls website. He says playing this level of basketball was a dream growing up.
"You get to play in the best country, and the best league (The Bulls play in the American Athletic Conference) in college and it's like a dream come true," he says.
These two men are sure to be among the game's best players next season.
With the conference tournaments taking place this week, expect to hear and see a lot more of these players.