Aaron White laid foundation for Hawkeyes’ turnaround

Iowa has gone from 11-20 in coach Fran McCaffery's first season to the top 25 this year, in no small part because of Aaron White's efforts.

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IOWA CITY, Iowa – There’s a story from early in senior power forward Aaron White’s college career here that’s come to define his stint as a Hawkeye, an era that’s spanned Iowa’s turnaround from a Big Ten also-ran to a top-25 team that’s 4-1 in the conference leading into Tuesday’s matchup at sixth-ranked Wisconsin.

It was the summer after White’s freshman season. When he committed to new head coach Fran McCaffery, White was going on faith. Things, he believed, would get better in Iowa City. When White made his official visit in high school, Iowa was in the midst of McCaffery’s 11-20 first year and stuck in what would be a multiyear rebuilding project. McCaffery told White things would change and that it would be because of him.

In turn, McCaffery had put faith in White, who was utterly overlooked as a recruit: too skinny, not a great outside shooter, didn’t have what it took to compete at the highest level. Pretty much only mid-majors were interested. But McCaffery saw in him a long, bouncy athlete with a great feel for the game. White grew up outside of Cleveland as an Ohio State fan and a Big Ten fan. This was the conference he wanted to play in, and Iowa was the only Big Ten school that offered him a scholarship.

So that’s how it ended up that White found himself on the floor at the Iowa practice facility one weekend night his freshman year. It was raining outside, but it’s not like he had anywhere else to be. He’s not one to party. For him, life is pretty much playing basketball, or practicing basketball, or thinking about basketball. Just about every night that freshman year, he showed up at Carver-Hawkeye Arena to work out.

On this one night, he came into the arena at 10 p.m. and worked out for a couple of hours. What he didn’t know was the locker room locked up at 11 p.m. He couldn’t get back in to get his stuff. And his cell phone was just about dead.

But he did know how to get back inside the visitor’s locker room, so he ended up sleeping there, with the cleaning crew waking him up the next morning.

This is a moment that has stuck with Iowa fans who’ve watched White mature from a skinny, overlooked kid to a young man who is the leader of a team that’s near the top of the Big Ten. It was a funny moment, sure, but it was also a moment that foretold a career of a kid who arrived overlooked and will leave as a player who has had an enormous part in turning around this program — and as a player who has a serious shot to play at the next level.

“I get tweets still about that night,” White told me the other day when I came to watch an Iowa team that has a handful of quality wins and zero bad losses on a resume that ought to get the Hawkeyes a decent seed in the NCAA tournament. “It’s funny, thinking about a kid in the gym shooting, and he can’t get out, so he sleeps there. That was one thing. But it also says something about my desire and my character, what I think about the game and how I carry myself. I’m not someone who is going to be going out, partying. I don’t care about anything besides hooping. That’s just how it is. And that story shows that.”

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It also shows how this young man’s determination has been one of the key factors in McCaffery taking an Iowa program that was irrelevant when he started and turning it into a team that can beat anyone in a Big Ten that’s chock-full of good-but-not-great teams.

I asked McCaffery the other day what White has meant to this program. The coach was effusive about not just White’s athleticism and work ethic but about the way he approaches the game mentally. In his senior season, this is White’s team, and McCaffery has entrusted him to be the coach on the floor, someone who has the ability to change his team’s offensive plays or defensive setups as he sees fit.

“You gotta think back to when he signed with us,” McCaffery said. “It wasn’t as fashionable. We had some guys that we went after that wouldn’t give us any love, that weren’t sure. But (White) wanted to play in the Big Ten. He came to visit his senior year, we got our ears pinned back that night (against Ohio State and Jared Sullinger). I told him, ‘It’s going to get better when you get here. It’s going to get better because you’re here.’

“And he’s right in the middle of everything we’ve done.”

In his four years at Iowa, White has become the school’s all-time leader in made free throws. That underscores the 6-foot-9 forward’s ability to relentlessly attack to the hoop. He draws an average of 7.2 fouls per 40 minutes, which is 24th in the nation, according to KenPom.com. He is the type of guy, McCaffery told me, who impacts a game even when he isn’t playing well: blocking a shot, making a key basket late, getting to the free throw line, guarding whomever McCaffery asks him to guard.

In a big victory last weekend over Ohio State — Iowa has beat White’s home-state school in three of four games the past two years — White simply did what he always does, getting to the line 12 times and making 10 of those en route to a 22-point, six-rebound performance.

Big Ten coaches have learned to never overlook White as they did during recruiting.

“I don’t know I’ve seen a faster kid down the floor,” Nebraska coach Tim Miles said. “He kind of starts out and strides out his first two steps — then, boom. … He’s faster than everybody else down the floor, and when you try to catch him, you foul him. He gets fouled a lot in transition on the baseline. And that’s just because he’s that fast.”

“He’s a cagey kid, a smart player who gets people off-balance,” Miles continued. “He knows when to drive. … It looks like he never gets tired.”

White’s story — from overlooked to Big Ten star — is a remarkable one that’s often overlooked nationally.

It’s surprised plenty of people, from the coaches who hadn’t offered him back in high school to the Iowa fans who wondered why McCaffery had so much trust in a skinny redhead from Ohio. But it’s surprised no one as much as it has White himself.

“I knew coming here Coach Fran would turn things around, but I wasn’t sure where I’d fit in,” White told me. “I knew I could impact the game, I knew I could play hard, I knew I could give him solid minutes, but I didn’t know I could be this good and impact this program as much as I have. Not to be arrogant or anything. But I’ve really worked at it. I’ve really come a long way.

“If you would have told me four years ago, I don’t think I’d have believed you. It’s just been hard work. I have a great passion for the game. I love playing, I love studying it, I love working at it. I love everything about the game. And that can make up for a lot.”

Which is why, a decade or two from now, people in Iowa City will still remember the name Aaron White — and for a lot more than just being the kid who got locked in the arena one rainy night his freshman year.

Email Reid Forgrave at reidforgrave@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @reidforgrave.