Brown: Former Hawkeye shaped Aaron White's perspective

Rick Brown
Iowa team carries Aaron White's identity

IOWA CITY, Ia. – Aaron White sat on a folding chair, pulling the tape off his ankles with tears in his eyes.

Iowa had just lost to Michigan State in the second round of the 2012 Big Ten basketball tournament, but that wasn't the source of White's sadness. The freshman knew he might have played his final game with the teammate he looked up to the most, senior Matt Gatens.

"Just don't take anything for granted," White said then. "It goes by so quickly."

Gatens' career was extended two games in the NIT. In the final Carver-Hawkeye Arena game of Gatens' career, White scored 25 points in a 84-75 NIT victory over Dayton. As Gatens walked off the floor for the final time, he had his arm draped around White's shoulders.

The torch had been passed, and time does fly. The freshman is now a senior. And these are White's 2014-15 Hawkeyes.

"There's always one player that sort of becomes the identity of the team," Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. "It was Jarryd Cole's team. It was Matt Gatens' team. It was Devyn Marble's team. And now it's Aaron White's team."

Iowa has made a climb to respectability during White's career, going to postseason play for the past three years including the school's first NCAA bid in eight years last season. The Hawkeyes will attempt to win at least 20 games for a third straight season, which hasn't happened since 1998-99.

McCaffery came in as a coach with an offensive reputation, and his fast-breaking style has been fun to watch. But another 20-win season and NCAA berth won't happen unless the Hawkeyes tighten up the laces and play some defense.

Iowa was 19-6 last season after a victory at Penn State. The Hawkeyes finished 20-13. Why?

Theories abound, but there is one absolute: This team lost its way defensively. Iowa allowed an average of 80 points over its final eight games.

"We lost our identity," White said. "We weren't getting those big stops like we were at the beginning of the year. And that's what turns wins into losses."

Dunks are fun. Defense is want-to.

"You look back and you think, 'Did I give it everything I can?' " White said. "Maybe you thought you did, but you didn't. That's another thing I've learned. Your body can do way more than you think it can. It's all about your mind, your focus, and how much desire you have. It's something you've got to stick with, whether it's the last 10 minutes of a game or the last three games of the season."

Someone is going to have to pick up the 17 points a game Marble left behind when he headed for the NBA. White, who averaged 12.8 points a game, is a logical candidate.

"The ball's not going to be in one guy's hands this year," White said. "Because we don't have that guy."

And he's got to shoot better than 25.8 percent from 3.

If teams leave you open from 15 to 20 feet from the basket ...

"I'm shooting it," White said.

Will they be sorry they left you open?

"I'm shooting it," White said.

A few more points, and better defense, might reverse one of last season's most glaring statistics. Iowa was 2-8 in games decided by five points or less or in overtime.

"Aaron's going to be right in the middle of it," McCaffery said. "If he's talking about it, then he has to do it defensively. He's always been an offensive player. He steals the ball. He's a terrific rebounder. But can he be a lock-down defender?"

This is Aaron White's team. His identity is stamped all over it. And with a little defense, it might be an enjoyable swan song.

Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.