INDIANAPOLIS — The news of his signing didn’t get the splash of a couple of Fran McCaffery’s subsequent recruits to Iowa, but former 3-star prospect Aaron White was a coup of a catch.
The last three weeks have been a Matt Gatens-palooza for Iowa basketball, but it’s not like other Hawkeyes haven’t had some shining moments. Several came Thursday in the Hawkeyes’ 64-61 win over Illinois in the first round of the Big Ten tournament,
Defensively, 6-foot-7 Zach McCabe didn’t back off after a tough first 25 minutes and wore down 7-1 Illini center Meyers Leonard. Bryce Cartwright played one of his best games of the year directing the offense. Gatens was Gatens, with 20 points and defense that stymied Illinois guard Brandoin Paul.
As for White, it seems progressively more fitting that he comes from an Ohio city called Strongsville.
Freshmen forwards in major-college ball typically wilt, not get stronger, as their first seasons age. But like Thursday’s game, the longer this season has gone, the more White has produced.
It’s not that the 6-8, 225-pounder didn’t get exhausted fairly early against the Illini, or wasn’t visibly spent at a couple of intervals in the second half. But he played through it. To say the least.
“It was weird,” White said. “At the beginning of the game I was more tired than I usually get. I was really pumped up for the Big Ten tournament, really excited to be here.
“In the second half I was just trying to play hard, ride that momentum wave that we had. I was diving all over the floor trying to get rebounds.”
White was a redheaded menace to Illinois. He had seven points in the 13-2 Iowa run that turned a 46-42 deficit into a 55-48 lead. He and his team shifted into a more aggressive gear, and it paid off.
White got a lay-in off a give-and-go with Cartwright. He got a putback with 11:31 left to give the Hawkeyes a lead they would keep. He knifed to the basket for a score, an Illini foul, and a 3-point play. All of that came in a three-minute span.
Iowa led 60-56 when Devyn Marble missed the front end of a one-and-one with: 41 remaining. But instead of Illinois seizing the gift, White stormed in to get the rebound and flick the ball outside to Gatens, who got fouled and made both ends of a bonus.
“I had no offensive rebounds in the first half and the coaches kept harping on it,” White said. “That’s something I kind of pride myself in, something I do well. So I sneaked in there, tapped it to myself, and got it to our best free throw-shooter, Matt.
“It was something that had to be done.”
True, that. This game wasn’t won because Iowa had superior size or talent. It had neither. But it defended better, and played smarter and harder.
White collected his second and third fouls in the first two minutes of the second half, ominous stuff for his team. So he sat for 4 1/2 minutes. When he returned, he didn’t — forgive the pun — play gingerly to avoid a fourth personal.
He finished with 13 points, 9 rebounds, 3 steals, and zero turnovers in 28 minutes. Nice freshman.
The White of November and December was nice, but just a shadow of this man in February and March. He’ll take averages of 10.5 points and 5.5 rebounds into Friday’s quarterfinal against Michigan State. That’s why he was on the league’s All-Freshman team, and will probably be All-Other Stuff before his career ends.
“He’s been huge all season,” said Gatens. “For a freshman like him to step it up in his first Big Ten tournament experience and his first season ... I’m really proud of him.
“It’s been a lot of fun to work with, and he’ll be fun to watch in the years to come.”
“I came in wanting to make an impact on the team,” White said. “I didn’t want to come in and blend in as a freshman. I think I’ve done a pretty good job with consistent effort.
“As the season’s gone on, instead of getting tired or getting worse, I feel like I’ve gotten better.”
White doesn’t lack in the confidence a team leader needs, that’s for sure. Which is a good thing.
“We believed we were going to win,” he said. “I don’t think it was a major hump. It was just another step in the road. A big step, but we’ve got to get focused on tomorrow.”
It had been six years since Iowa won one of these conference-tourney games. Not coincidentally, it’s been almost the same amount of time since the Hawkeyes had a frontcourt player like White.