LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Even on a night when he swore he didn't set the tone, Royce White set the tone.
"No board material," the Iowa State forward told his teammates late Thursday as he sat in the back of the Cyclones locker room and cast a wary eye at the approaching mass of camera- and recorder-toting reporters. White, who has been through the media wringer himself thanks to some poor choices a few years ago, understands how this part of the game works. Iowa State had just dispatched defending national champ Connecticut from the NCAA Tournament with a
White would prefer the Cyclones remain -- to the outside world -- the humble underdogs just happy for a place in the Big Dance. Thursday, he took very little credit for Iowa State's win despite a 15-point, 13-rebound performance. He repeatedly deflected a question as to whether his full-court sprint for a vicious dunk to start the game served notice that the 2011 champs wouldn't hang around long in the 2012 tourney. "They were down 20, and they came back to within six," White said. "So that dunk didn't make that much of a statement."
The Cyclones weren't actually underdogs Thursday, at least not in the minds of the members of the NCAA's selection committee. But a lot of geniuses got
The trickiest part will be dealing with White, a 6-foot-8, 270-pounder who looks like an NFL defensive end and handles like an NBA guard. UConn coach Jim Calhoun said he used four different players in practice in a vain attempt to simulate White. Cyclones guard Chris Babb loves watching teams try to figure out how to defend White. "It just creates a lot of mismatches," Babb said. "It's tough to prepare for us having a guy with that size with that court vision and that kind of ballhandling ability."
Kentucky almost didn't have to prepare for White. Under other circumstances, he would be a Wildcat. White, Minnesota's Mr. Basketball in 2009, originally signed with his hometown Golden Gophers. But before he ever played a game at Minnesota, White was arrested and charged with shoplifting at Mall of America. Gophers coach Tubby Smith suspended White indefinitely, and it became clear that the marriage of White and Minnesota wouldn't work.
In the summer of 2010, White got a call from Kentucky coach John Calipari. Calipari had a scholarship available if White wanted it. All he had to do was fly to Lexington the next day and enroll in Kentucky's summer session.
For most people, the decision would have been simple. But White suffers from generalized anxiety disorder, a sometimes mentally crippling condition that he attempts to control with medication. The thought of flying to Lexington alone was enough to trigger a panic attack. "Heck yeah," White said. "I hate heights. I'm scared of us being on the 23rd floor of the Galt House [hotel] right now."
White wound up choosing Iowa State, where alum Fred "The Mayor" Hoiberg was assembling a group of transfers that would wind up being one of the best scout teams in the modern era while sitting out the 2010-11 season. Babb had left Penn State. Guard Chris Allen had been kicked off the team at Michigan State. Forward Anthony Booker came from Southern Illinois. Meanwhile, guard Scott Christopherson, a Marquette transfer, had already established himself in the Cyclones' rotation.
In the group's first year playing games at Iowa State, the Cyclones have bested last year's win total by eight. They made the tournament for the first time since 2005. But even their road to the Big Dance hasn't been typical. Why? Because White actually traveled on a road to get here.
While the rest of the team flew, White, worried that the anxiety over the flight might unnecessarily sap him of energy, rode in a car driven by his grandfather, Frank White. White munched on honey buns and listened to Adele while his grandfather drove the eight-hour stretch between Ames, Iowa and Louisville. "It worked," White said.
Before he went to sleep Wednesday night, White cruised the web, reading story after story about the Cyclones' impending doom. He posted a tweet
Thursday, White and the Cyclones woke up and changed the narrative.
"You can't ask for a better storyline," White said. "You're considered the underdog. You get the defending champs. Then you get the people that everybody thinks are going to win it."