Bigger goal, role for White

The D.J. White story from today’s paper.

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By Chris Korman (331-4353 | [email protected])

A year ago, D.J. White had just decided he would stay at Indiana to play for a new coach.

Each afternoon he would arrive at Assembly Hall to join his teammates for informal workouts. Together, they had no idea what their new coach, Kelvin Sampson, wanted from them.

If they were not entirely a rudderless group they were certainly without map or compass or the light of a guiding star. Their leaders were three scrappy, admirable seniors who’d had winding paths and had, just like the rest of them, freshly suffered the anxiety of playing a season under constant scrutiny and the looming fear that their coach, Mike Davis, would soon be gone.

White himself was dealing with, for perhaps the first time, basketball betraying him. He had broken his foot twice as a sophomore, washing away a chance to build on his Big Ten Freshman of the Year performance.

He lost faith in his own body. It seemed to be crumbling just as assuredly as the program and coach he’d given his allegiance to.

A year of change

On Monday, White stood in the South Lobby at Assembly Hall and talked about the city that every college basketball coach, player and fan hopes to reach at the end of next season: San Antonio.

“We got a great team coming in and a good chance to get it to San Antonio,” he says, his tone no different than when he talks of the need for the freshman to adjust to Sampson’s rigorous practice sessions.

Yes, just a year later, talk of reaching the Final Four is nonchalant in the halls of Assembly Hall.

The goal is tangible, largely because of a freshman guard named Eric Gordon.

And because White may finally be the player — and appears to be becoming the leader — that a championship team must have.

Though no one admitted it during last season (Sampson’s teams do not make excuses, no matter how valid they might be), White played gingerly for the majority of his early-season minutes. If you have ever injured your thumb badly, you know what happens: every movement you make with your hurt hand becomes something you think about, a possibility for more pain and damage that must be navigated.

Now, imagine that this has happened to your foot and you are a basketball player.

But White was back to his ebullient, bullish self during the NCAA tournament. He averaged 11 rebounds and 15 points in two games. More significantly, he fought the double team and began showing signs that he could center a cohesive team. Earlier in the year he’d often seemed like a mercenary at times, asked to do his own work outside the planned frame.

White is clearly the leader of an Indiana team that must integrate six new players. He is high on the new class and hopeful that he will have a fellow post player to distract defenses from the singular task of stopping him.

“I think my roll will change a little bit,” he said. “I feel like the new guys will open up a lot for me. I’m going to see double teams like I did last year but not as hard because we have a good group coming in.”

One of the new post players, DeAndre Thomas, has been working the hardest in the gym this summer, according to White. Thomas, who arrived from Chipola junior college weighing more than 350 pounds, is trying to shed at least 50 pounds. He and Sampson can often be seen walking from Assembly Hall to Sampson’s house and back. That’s an eight-mile trip.

White has shed 10 pounds this summer. He arrives each morning at Assembly Hall after picking up sophomore point guard Armon Bassett and does foot-work drills before lifting weights. He and Bassett often spend their afternoon hours shooting and then take part in pick-up games.

For those games, the point guards are paired with different shooting guards each day (Bassett with Eric Gordon one day, Gordon with Jordan Crawford the next) and then are allowed to pick their big men. Not too far from playground ball. The selected teams then play a best-of-seven series.

Though the games are not played according to Sampson’s defense-first, rebound-second standard, White believes they are beneficial to the younger players.

“With those games, we just need them to get a feel for how competitive it is,” White said.

Shaping a team

During the summer months, White, with help from Bassett, has been the man trying to create the next Indiana basketball team. He has been there to help the new players with their adjustments to a new school or college life in general. He admits it has not be easy.

“It’s been fun, but sometimes it’s challenging,” he said. “My thing now is to let the guys know the summer time is nothing like school time. We still work hard during summer time but there’s a lot more on our plates once school starts: classes, study hours, tutors and what not. I’m just trying to let them know there’s more to do, more responsibilities during school. I know how tough it is to play in this league and in our non-conference schedule.”

White believes the new players are all level-headed, but admits that the allure of Indiana’s raucous social life can tempt them.

“We just have to remind them of what the goals are,” he said.

If White makes the United States team that will play in the Pan Am games, he will be away for three weeks. If not, he’ll return this weekend. Either way, he is trying to prepare the team for the 10 official practices scheduled for late August as a run-up to the Bahamas Foreign Tour over Labor Day.

“The foreign tour isn’t about the trip and it isn’t about the competition,” Sampson said last week. “It’s about the practices and having a chance to make these guys better by yelling at them for ten days straight.”

White said he expects 6 a.m. workouts and possibly double sessions during the time Sampson is allowed to coach the team.

Last year, not one of the Hoosiers understood what Sampson wanted. White was nervous before individual workouts and practices.

This year White knows, and has chosen it.

He again spent his spring deciding whether to leave or stay. This time, he considered jumping to the NBA.

A year like last year, with all its growing and changing, piqued his interest. He feels there is more he can do.

“There are a lot of things I haven’t accomplished yet,” he said. “I’m here and I’m glad to be here.”