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March 16, 2012
White is a do-it-all challege for UK's defense
LOUISVILLE - Deep into Friday afternoon, John Calipari still was looking for some answers, still was tinkering with a game plan for Royce White.
Calipari's top-seeded Kentucky team will face White and 8th-seeded Iowa State Saturday at the KFC Yum! Center in an NCAA Tournament Round of 32 game, and White poses a unique problem for a coach trying to survive and advance.
"You've got to figure out how you're going to guard him," Calipari said. "We have yet to do that, and we may never figure it out. Not many people have."
White is a 6-foot-8, 270-pound point forward who leads Iowa State in scoring (13.1 points per game), rebounding (9.3 per game), assists (five per game) and blocked shots (0.9 per game). He's the only player in Division I who leads his team in all four categories.
"It's going to be a challenge for us," UK forward Terrence Jones said.
It's one the Wildcats almost avoided.
There was a time in 2010 when White - transferring then from Minnesota, where he'd been suspended for his entire freshman season - seemed intent on landing at Kentucky.
If only he could have taken off.
"He didn't get on the plane, or he would have been (at UK)," Calipari said.
White - who has openly discussed his battle with anxiety disorder - met with Calipari in the spring of 2010 as he tried to determine the next stop in his basketball career.
The two hit it off, and White was excited about the possibility of playing for a coach he said he'd long admired.
"We had a good talk about a lot of things," White said. "It was good enough where I wanted to go to Lexington, and it just didn't work out the way we planned it, and Iowa State was a better fit."
It's true that White opted not to board a plane to Lexington, but his reasons were more complicated than merely his fear of flying.
"The mother of my firstborn son, we had just found out that she was going to have a son right around February, January," White said. "And as you know, pregnancy gets really tough in those main months right there, right where I was going to be starting the season off."
Kentucky needed a quick decision, and White wasn't ready to make one. In Minneapolis, two sets of grandparents could provide support for his son, so White elected to transfer to Iowa State, about a three-hour drive from Minneapolis.
White sat out last season, per NCAA transfer rules, but he's flourished as a sophomore for the Cyclones.
It started during a summer trip to Europe, where Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg saw that White - who has speed that belies his size - was a deft decision-maker with the ball in his hands and could thrive as a point forward.
"We've got a team that really can utilize those strengths, with him getting into the paint and being able to space the floor with our shooters," said Hoiberg, whose team makes an average of 8.8 three-pointers per game. "We talk in practice about spacing every single day, and we try to create opportunities for Royce to take advantage of that."
The result is that Iowa State has a freight train of a forward directing its offense.
"He's a guy that's trying to make plays," Jones said. "Not only trying to score, but just be a playmaker, trying to create for others."
That would seem to be a unique challenge for a defender with Jones' size, but the 6-foot-9, 252-pound forward said he's been properly prepared.
"It's just like practice, really," Jones said. "I'm guarding Darius (Miller), Michael (Kidd-Gilchrist), Anthony (Davis) in practice that are trying to make plays. It's more like guarding someone from our team."
And though that isn't easy, it isn't impossible.
"He's not LeBron James or nothing like that," Kidd-Gilchrist said. "It's not like he's unguardable or anything like that."
Still, White is a challenge to defend.
It's one Calipari would have been happy not to have faced.
White left Minnesota with some baggage - he pleaded guilty to charges of disorderly conduct and theft for a shoplifting incident and altercation with a Mall of America security guard - but his issues didn't scare off Calipari.
Calipari called Minnesota and former UK coach Tubby Smith to make sure he had no problem with UK's pursuit of White. When Smith gave the all-clear, Calipari set up a meeting with White and his mother, and the coach left "blown away," he said.
" I knew he had some issues, but it wasn't anything of the heart," Calipari said. "I've done this a long time, and if a young man has a good heart, I can deal with everything else, and I think he has a good heart."
Hoiberg saw the same things, and he was happy to take on White, whom he's watched deal with anxiety disorder off the court as he's flourished on it.
"I've had calls from parents of kids that have that disorder, just making sure that I thank him for helping those kids cope," Hoiberg said. "It's a real thing, and he's gone public with that and has really, I think, done a great job of helping, especially kids, try to help them live normal lives even though they have anxiety."
Calipari, meanwhile, has remained a long-distance admirer of White's. On Saturday, his team gets an up-close look.
"What Iowa State and the State of Iowa has done for that young man, he's on that path that I would want him on if he played for me," Calipari said. "So I just hope he's not on the path one more game."
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