White isn't in the background anymore

San Diego State forward takes advice to pursue the ball more and elevates his game

March 24, 2011|By Chris Dufresne, Tribune Newspapers

Steve Fisher is the name brand for San Diego State basketball, the professorial former coach of Michigan and the "Fab Five."

With white hair and dark-framed glasses, he's what your grandpa would look like if he taught yoga and stuck to a high-fiber diet.

Kawhi Leonard is the complete-player star, a 6-foot-7 sophomore averaging a double-double at 15 points and 10 rebounds per game.

Leonard plays with a big heart and even bigger hands.

A reporter at the Tucson regional asked Leonard at a news conference if he could display one of his gargantuan mitts.

He did, to the sounds of cameras clicking.

What could he do with those hands that average folks couldn't — besides maybe want to strangle the guy who would ask such a question?

"I can grab a rebound, palm it with one hand, pass the ball with one hand — I can dribble like easy," Leonard said. "That's about it."

Senior point guard D.J. Gay is the super glue. He holds everything together for the Aztecs and even commits a turnover once or twice a season.

Chase Tapley plays "off" guard, but when he's on he's hitting timely three pointers and pestering the opponent's best scorer. He can describe every crease in Jimmer Fredette's forehead.

James Rahon provides a three-point punch off the bench, and 300-pound center Brian Carlwell's role is to blot the lane out like a lunar eclipse.

But San Diego State remains in the tournament to play Connecticut on Thursday in Anaheim because of 6-8 senior forward Billy White, who recently has elevated his game two or three more inches above the rim.

"I talked to Coach Fisher and talked to my teammates, and they just wanted me to just step up a little bit more," White said after his starring role in the Temple win.

White has posted double-doubles in points and rebounds in each of the Aztecs' last three games, starting against Brigham Young in the Mountain West Conference tournament title game and continuing through two NCAA tournament wins.

It's been a remarkable surge considering White had only two double-doubles in his first 130 college games.

White's sinewy services were never more needed than against Temple. Leonard seemed in a funk the whole game, making only five of 14 shots; Gay, in the midst of a prolonged shooting slump, made only three of 13.

However, White was white-hot, making eight of 15 shots and finishing with 16 points and 13 rebounds. He has 38 rebounds in the last three games yet his per-game average is only 4.4.

White is also playing smarter. He picked up his third foul with 17 minutes 53 seconds left against Temple but did not commit another through two overtime periods.

"You know, Coach just told me not to foul," White said.

White's four years at San Diego State have been punctuated with highs and search parties.

"Some spectacular moments," Fisher said of White's play after the Temple game, "and some other games where you look at the stat sheet and say, 'What happened?'"

A couple "What happened?" moments: In a Feb. 12 game at UNLV, White played 29 minutes and finished with four points (on 2-for-8 shooting), three rebounds and five turnovers.

Four days later, in a home game against New Mexico, White played 25 minutes and didn't score because he never took a shot. He had two rebounds and two turnovers.

Fisher was so mystified that he asked David Velasquez, the team's director of player development, to splice together game clips of White.

"He gave me a cut of Billy standing and watching when shots would go up," Fisher said. "And we would say, 'How can you get a rebound if you don't go after a rebound?'"

White got the message.

Now, Fisher said, White is "pursuing the ball like Kawhi pursues the ball. He is going after every ball. And I think more than anything else he has motivated himself to say, 'I've got to find a way to get my hands on more balls, and I'm good enough to do it.'"

White's line in the last three games:

Temple: 16 points, 13 rebounds, one assist, one block, one steal.

Northern Colorado: 12 points, 13 rebounds, two assists, three steals.

Brigham Young: 21 points, 12 rebounds, two assists, five steals.

"Billy's performance has definitely been a boost, especially to the team's confidence," Gay said. "You couldn't ask for a better time for him to peak."


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