The Hurricanes had just earned a spot in the Sweet 16 last Saturday, just survived a roller-coaster of a game against Wichita State, riding the shoulders of the smallest man on the court — their gutsy point guard Angel Rodriguez, who not only scored a career-high 28 points, but ignited his team with alley-oop passes and circus shots when things had begun to unravel.
Rodriguez stood mid-court, looked up toward the heavens, and blew up a kiss as the University of Miami bench spilled out and erupted in celebration around him.
It was a tribute to his father, who was killed on the crime-ridden streets of Cupey, Puerto Rico, when “Angelito” was 2 years old. Raised by young widow, Jacqueline Tricoche, Rodriguez had to grow up in a hurry.
So if he plays bigger than he looks when the third-seeded Canes (27-7) take on second-seed Villanova (31-5) on Thursday night in the Sweet 16 in Louisville, there’s good reason.
Although he was small in stature, he became the man of the house as a child, learned to be brave, and vowed to make his mother and late-father proud of him.
And so, at the age of 15, speaking not a word of English, he left home and moved to Miami to pursue his basketball dream. He lived with the family of his cousin, Javi Gonzalez, the 2007 Florida High School Basketball Player of the Year, who was playing point guard for North Carolina State at the time.
“I’ll never forget, Javi told me, ‘I’ve got a cousin in Puerto Rico who’s better than me,’ and I said, ‘Naaah, no way,’ ” recalled Shakey Rodriguez (no relation), who was the coach at Dr. Michael M. Krop High School at the time.
Gonzalez brought his young cousin to an open gym workout, and Coach Rodriguez was floored.
“I’ll never forget the first time I saw him play,” Shakey Rodriguez said. “He told me he wanted to be a wing guard, not a point guard. I watched him play for five minutes, called him over and said, ‘Angel, you’re a point guard.’ ”
Angel has a Napoleon complex. He plays with a little bit of a chip on his shoulder, a very good chip.
Over the next three years, Shakey Rodriguez witnessed what the nation is seeing on television during this NCAA Tournament — a player at his best when the competition is the fiercest and the stakes are the highest.
The coach recalled a game against Carol City during Rodriguez’s senior year when his knee was bothering him, so coaches suggested he sit out. Rodriguez spent the first half on the bench in street clothes. His team was struggling, and it was killing him. During halftime, he changed into his uniform, went up to his coach and said: “I’m ready. Put me in.”
“Angel put that game to bed real quick, took over and scored 17 points in the fourth quarter,” Rodriguez, the coach, said.
UM coach Jim Larrañaga said that willingness to take over a game, make high-risk decisions and take shots in the most critical moments are what make him so special.
“Angel has a Napoleon complex,” Larrañaga said of his 5-11 point guard. “You know, basketball’s a big man’s game and I’m an undersized guard and people don’t respect me enough. I’m going to take over the world type attitude. So, he plays with a little bit of a chip on his shoulder, a very good chip. He’s not afraid of competition. He invites it. He’s challenged by it and raises his level of concentration and focus when he’s challenged.”
Rodriguez made All-Dade as a sophomore. His junior year he was Dade County Player of the Year. And by his senior year, he was averaging 23 points and six assists, and being recruited by Louisville’s Rick Pitino, Florida’s Billy Donovan, among others. He wound up at Kansas State, playing for Shakey Rodriguez’s disciple Frank Martin, who spoke Spanish, making the transition to college easier.
He did well, made All-Defensive team and Second-team All-Big 12 as a sophomore, but was getting homesick. He missed his girlfriend, Jesenia, whom he recently married on Jan. 26. When Martin left for South Carolina, Rodriguez became desperate to get back to Florida. He talked about it over breakfast at IHOP with coach Rodriguez, and Shakey put in a call to Larrañaga.
Rodriguez and his mother visited the Miami campus, and never visited another college. Rodriguez was sold. He was particularly touched that while Larrañaga toured him around campus on his golf cart, a translator sat in the back with his mother and told her everything the coach was saying. No school he had visited out of high school had done that.
Larrañaga has been impressed with Rodriguez’s character as much as his game.
“He’s a people person and I’m sure from a media standpoint, he’s a darling to interview,” Larrañaga said. “He’s bright. Here’s a young man who at 15 years old didn’t speak a word of English and now he’s got a command of the English language. I told him he may be able to use that for a career. I could see him being the Spanish version of Dick Vitale.”
Rodriguez, a redshirt senior, sat out per transfer rules, and has been the team’s heart and soul since he stepped on the court in a UM uniform.
It was on display again against Wichita State. Tired of reading about the brilliance of Shockers point guard Fred VanVleet, Rodriguez scored the first seven points of the game, 16 in the first 10 minutes, and by halftime had as many field goals as the entire Shockers team. He finished 9 of 11, and VanVleet conceded that Rodriguez “pretty much kicked my butt.”
The Canes took a 21-point first-half lead, but then Wichita State clawed back. As the Miami lead dwindled, Rodriguez got more fired up.
He threw up a 35-foot alley-oop pass on the run and McClellan, in full sprint, slammed it down. He sank an off-balance runner, nailed a three-pointer to stretch UM’s lead to seven, and made 5 of 6 free throws in the final minute to seal the win.
“Remarkable,” teammate Ja’Quan Newton said after the game. “The performance he put on was crazy. Best game I’ve ever seen him play. He’s talented, and he’s all heart. When we see him playing like that, everyone else feeds off it.
Added teammate Kamari Murphy: “He is one of the toughest little guys I know. No matter how tall or big you are, he’s still going to go at you. Still got the guts to take the biggest shots, and make them. I’m just glad I got that guy on my team.”