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A pillar of strength

Junior center Ruben Guerrero won the NCAA Sportsmanship of the Year Award in 2016.
ORACLE FILE PHOTO/JACKIE BENITEZ

USF men’s basketball hasn’t done much winning since Ruben Guerrero arrived in Tampa in the fall of 2014. 

Since the then 7-foot, sub-200-pound teenager from Marbella, Spain stepped foot on campus, he’s been witness to more bad luck than many athletes encounter in a lifetime. 

In two-plus seasons at USF, Guerrero and the Bulls have lost 62 of 85 games. 

In that timespan, six of his teammates chose to transfer out of the program. The coach who recruited him was fired. And, to top it off, the NCAA launched an investigation before this season, targeting USF for academic fraud.

In the midst of it all, Guerrero stands tall.

Though he’s been given every reason to give up and leave, his appreciation of the school he plays for has never waned. 

“I’ve been here for so many years and I want USF to be known for being good,” Guerrero said. “I want us to be good, that’s why I’m always trying to bring the guys up like, ‘Come on guys, we represent so much more than what you guys think. Family, USF, your past in high school, everything you fought for, it’s right here, right now.’

“So, you have to have pride and compete and at least show fight and show that we have been working for it.”

Now, the 240-pound center has transformed from a lightweight and reserved 18-year-old to one of the strongest and most outspoken players on the team. 

Aside from gaining over 40 pounds of muscle and becoming a regular starter, the junior also won both the NCAA Sportsmanship Award and AAC Sportsmanship Award for 2016. 

“When (Guerrero) first got here, he didn’t really say much,” junior guard and roommate Jake Bodway said. “He kind of kept to himself and just showed up. He was a nice guy, but he wasn’t really outspoken. 

“Now, it’s his third year and he’s very outgoing, he interacts with everyone now and he’s one of the biggest leaders on our team. He’s definitely grown out of his shell.”

Consistently the one to extend a helping hand whenever a player goes down and the first guy to celebrate his teammates’ accomplishments with a hearty chest bump and high-five, Guerrero’s upbeat and encouraging demeanor has been invaluable to interim coach Murry Bartow. 

“(He’s been) critical, very critical,” Bartow said. “You’re always looking for that guy who’s always going to have a good attitude. You want players who are consistent. You know every day what you’re going to get when you come see Ruben, he’s the same every day. 

“He’s upbeat, he’s always got a positive attitude. He’s an incredible teammate because he’s always going to encourage you.”

The growth Guerrero has shown in his time at USF, in spite of the swirling chaos surrounding him, undoubtedly stems from the long road he’s taken since committing his life to basketball seven years ago. 

The 21-year-old Spaniard moved from his home of Marbella when he was 14 to pursue playing basketball for the U-18 Spanish National Team in Malaga, Spain. 

He spent years away from his family and friends working on his craft, oftentimes in small gyms with no air conditioning. 

“You guys have so much more facilities (in America),” Guerrero said. “You have a gym everywhere, people love sports here. In Spain, it’s a little bit tougher. I’ve played on cement courts, so it really makes you appreciate what we have here. 

“We have 24/7 open access to the gym, we have food for free, we have trainers, coaches, everything. Anything you want, they give it to you and it really makes you appreciate everything.”

When it came time to commit to his future, Guerrero opted to move to the U.S. so he could play basketball and study at the same time, a luxury universities in Spain don’t offer. 

So, he moved to Wichita, Kansas with his younger brother Adrian to play for Sunrise Christian Academy, a system of schools known for grooming international talent. Some of its notable alumni include current Michigan State guard Lourawls Niarn Jr. and New Orleans Pelicans guard Buddy Hield. 

“I did my senior year of high school in Kansas and it was a little weird,” Guerrero said. “It was a tiny, tiny town and a small school, barely 200 students. It was super, super small. And Kansas is not Tampa, where there are so many Hispanic people. There weren’t that many foreigners, so it was weird at the beginning, but they showed a lot of love and my brother being with me helped a lot.”

It was there at Sunrise where Guerrero first met Orlando Antigua. 

The former Bulls coach had recently been hired by USF and was looking to round out his first recruiting class, which desperately needed a post player. Guerrero was a three-star center on a team that finished ranked No. 14 in the nation by USA Today. 

“I didn’t know about (Antigua) until he came over,” Guerrero said. “We were playing open gym and my head coach at Sunrise told me (Antigua) got the job at USF and was from Kentucky and all that. I was really shocked at the beginning. 

“We played pickup and I did good and he talked to me a little bit after in Spanish. Obviously that put a smile on my face. That was a good first step. I liked him, I liked the way he was.”

After narrowing his choices down to USF, Houston and George Mason, Guerrero said his visit to USF and his connection with the coaching staff helped make the decision easy for him. 

Though Guerrero didn’t have much experience with losing, he quickly became familiar at USF. 

Rather than letting it deter him, he pushed himself to grow, both as a leader and in the weight room. 

He said he had trouble playing against bigger opponents in the post and Antigua told him he had to bulk up if he wanted to be relied upon at USF.

Guerrero accepted the challenge and by the time he was a sophomore, he was already weighing in at just under 225 pounds. 

“When I first got here, I was one of the weakest guys,” Guerrero said. “I worked really hard, extremely hard, and I ate a lot. It looks easy, like, ‘Oh, you just have to eat.’ But, no, I ate until I threw up pretty much. I would eat until I couldn’t eat anymore. 

“I would eat pizza, pasta, rice, chicken, everything until I pretty much threw up. And only then is when I would say, ‘Ok, that’s good.’ And then I would start over the next day and do it again and again. I came in here on my days off and told the strength coach, ‘Hey, can I get more lifting in? I know I need it. Can we do some extra workouts?’ By now, its me, Lou (Santos) and Jake who are the strongest guys on the team.”

Despite the changes Guerrero has undergone both on and off the court in his three years in Tampa, much remains the same for the Bulls. 

USF (6-14, 0-9) is mired in a nine-game losing streak and has yet to win since Antigua was fired at the tail end of December. 

But even after nearly three years of losing basketball, Guerrero said it’s only made him stronger for what’s to come. 

“It’s been tough, obviously,” Guerrero said. “Coming from that team in Spain where we used to win a lot, we even went to Spanish championships. And then coming here, it’s been tough. But I think every athlete goes through those times where they win and where they don’t win, so it’s just part of being an athlete. You’re not always going to win, you’re not always going to have it easy in your career.

“So, this is teaching me to be better by losing. It sounds bad, but losing makes you better. Obviously I want to win more. It’s been rough with everything that’s happened in the past, but we’re working with the kids we have and we’re trying to do good, we’re trying to win.”