IOWA CITY — A popular topic of conversation before Iowa took the court against Ohio State was how its blossoming star from the state of Ohio viewed the matchup.
Freshman forward Aaron White, even-keel in personality but dead honest about his mindset, offered his stance: It meant something to him, being passed over.
Not just by the home-state Buckeyes. By everybody who missed out on someone who is rapidly becoming a special talent in the Big Ten.
“I think about that every time before I take the floor,” White says. “People overlooked me all through high school — I think they still did at the beginning of this year. It’s in the back of my mind. It hasn’t worn off for me.
“I’m always going to play with a chip on my shoulder. I embrace that underdog role.”
Big body, big dreams
White always has looked and thought big for his age.
“He’s always been very responsible and more mature, wiser beyond his years,” says his mother, Deb Kuntz.
When he played youth league baseball in the affluent Cleveland suburb of Strongsville, Ohio, Kuntz was advised to carry his birth certificate to tournaments … just in case. There never was a conflict.
Rick White coached youth league baseball for his sons, Brian and Aaron, but he too recognized their long-term interests were elsewhere. Older brother Brian had a thing for music; he now owns Empire Recordings in Cleveland.
And Aaron? As a lanky second-grader, he was consistently defeating Brian and his sixth-grade friends at Knockout, an individual basketball shooting drill.
“He set himself a goal — like when he was really young, third or fourth grade, his dream was to play college basketball,” says Kuntz, a fifth-grade teacher in Strongsville. “How many kids have that dream, and it doesn’t happen for them? He’s always had an inner drive to succeed.”
White has been lucky enough to sustain just one major injury in his basketball life. The timing was extraordinarily unlucky.
Going into his junior year at Strongsville, he was just learning how to dunk as much safety as style. At a high school event, he went up for a slam, and someone undercut his body. He landed in the pushup position, breaking his wrist and knocking him out for the July portion of Ohio Basketball Club’s AAU season, the hottest recruitment period of the year.
“That hurt him from a recruiting perspective — there’s no doubt in my mind,” says Rick White, a chief credit officer for First National Bank in Medina, next door to Strongsville.
“It put him out of sight from a lot of coaches. He couldn’t be happier with what’s transpired since then, but it did put him behind the 8-ball.”
A four-year varsity player for the Mustangs, White competed in one of Ohio’s strongest conferences against a multitude of other top-flight recruits, like Trey Lewis (now at Penn State), Pat Forsythe (West Virginia) and Kenny Kaminski (a Michigan State recruit).
White averaged 23.1 points and 10 rebounds his senior year, and the three-star prospect entertained open gyms with coaches from Michigan, Wisconsin, Butler and Penn State.
“We talked about, is the Big Ten too tough,” Strongsville coach Joe Lynch says. “He didn’t see it that way.”
He received offers from every Mid-American Conference school, had a trip lined up to officially visit Boston College, and took inquiries from St. Bonaventure, George Mason and Temple.
Based on trust and comfort level with the coaches, White picked a school he knew very little about in a state where he never had been.
“The only thing I remember about them, was watching them play Northwestern State and they got upset,” White says. “That might not be the best memory.”
It came down to Iowa and Duquesne at the end. While White thought he might get offered by Penn State and Northwestern, he didn’t, nor from any other Big Ten program.
“I’m sure that’s driving him. It’s a roller-coaster ride for these kids and their families,” Lynch says. “They’re all recruiting you as if you’re No. 1, but you may be No. 3 or 4 on their list.
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“He really liked coach (Fran) McCaffery and (primary recruiter) Sherman Dillard a lot, and the opportunity to play pretty soon.”
Last spring, White went from the graduation stage in Ohio to the weight room in Iowa City in a matter of days.
His new coaches wanted him to pack on 20 to 25 pounds on his 6-foot-8 body during the summer, as well as play in the Prime Time League in North Liberty, Iowa.
“You’re never 100 percent sure of how hard a worker you have until you get him,” McCaffery says. “And he’s one of the hardest workers I’ve ever had. That bodes well for where he’s headed.”
Driving to PTL games with senior guard Matt Gatens rubbed off on the first-year forward, and White reaped the benefits early in Hawkeyes sessions.
“The first couple practices, he was nervous,” McCaffery says. “By the third or fourth practice, he was dominant. It’s rare that a freshman plays that well, that quickly, in practice at this level.”
Entering tonight’s game against No. 16 Wisconsin, White is among the top reasons Iowa’s reaching for its first winning season since Steve Alford’s last year in 2006-07. His numbers are better in Big Ten play than overall — another rookie anomaly — as he leads the Hawkeyes in conference rebounding and blocks and ranks second in scoring and field-goal percentage.
He’s a mortal lock to become Iowa’s fourth consecutive nominee to the Big Ten’s all-freshman team, following Gatens, Eric May and Melsahn Basabe. White knows success can be fleeting, though.
“That’s motivation enough for me right there. You come in as a freshman and sneak in and have a good season, but now you’re on the top of the scouting report,” White said. “To slip and have what they call a sophomore slump — I really don’t want that to happen.”
And through it all, he’s perpetrated his pregame routine of remembering being under the radar.
“Which is good. That’s huge,” Gatens says. “I’m sure for four years, he’ll try to take it out on Ohio State or whoever it is. Whatever helps motivate him to keep playing like he is right now.”