NCAA Tournament

Iowa State's Royce White was almost a Cat (7:45 pm, CBS)

Iowa State Cyclones forward Royce White (30) went in for a second half dunk as Iowa State played Connecticut  on Thursday  March 15, 2012  in Louisville, Ky. Photo  by Mark Cornelison | Staff
Iowa State Cyclones forward Royce White (30) went in for a second half dunk as Iowa State played Connecticut on Thursday March 15, 2012 in Louisville, Ky. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff Herald-Leader

LOUISVILLE — In an NCAA Tournament third-round game Saturday, Kentucky faces college basketball's most famous commuter.

Iowa State's do-everything forward, Royce White, did not fly here with the team from Ames, Iowa. Because he's anxious about air travel, he slept in the passenger seat as his grandfather drove his Cadillac eight hours.

White, the Big 12 Conference Newcomer of the Year and no doubt the college game's most intriguing man-child, is also afraid of heights.

"I'm scared about us being on the 23rd floor of the Galt House," he said with a smile after Iowa State whipped Connecticut on Thursday.

One thing that does not scare White: Kentucky. On the AAU circuit, he played against such future UK stars as Doron Lamb, Terrence Jones and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Familiarity humanizes the tournament's overall No. 1 seed.

"They're not another league of player," White said Friday. "Not to say they're better than me or I'm better than them. It's just not two different class of players."

White, whom Iowa State touts as the only player to lead his team in scoring (13.1 ppg), rebounding (9.3 rpg), assists (5 apg), steals (1.1 spg) and blocks (0.9 bpg), came close to playing for Kentucky. After he decided to transfer from Minnesota, UK Coach John Calipari came calling in the spring of 2010.

"My letter of intent was signed," White said. "But there was more paperwork I had to fill out."

Calipari's eagerness to get White to Lexington killed the deal, the player said.

"Coach Cal called me and said, 'We want you to come down as quick as possible so you'll be here for the first session of summer school,'" White said. "'So we want you to fly out tomorrow morning.'

"That was kind of an abrasive thing to me. I hadn't flown in a lot of months, and I struggle with flying anyway. I really need a lot of preparation to fly."

To fly, and White has flown to all but three of Iowa State's road games this season, requires a week or so of preparation. For one thing, he needs to reduce his intake of caffeine, he said.

"One day's notice just wasn't enough," said White, who then added, "To (Calipari's) credit, he had no way of knowing that. It was just the way everything played out."

A series of off-court problems preceded White's decision to transfer. Charges of academic misconduct forced him to transfer from one Minneapolis high school to another. He led the second school to the state championship.

White never got on the court for Tubby Smith at Minnesota. He was suspended after being charged with misdemeanor theft and fifth-degree assault of a mall security guard. Later, he was investigated for stealing a laptop computer.

"When I met him and his mom, I was blown away," Calipari said. "Like I really want to coach this kid. I knew he had some issues, but it wasn't anything of the heart. I've done this a long time, and if a young man has a good heart, I can deal with everything else. And I think he has a good heart."

Two factors helped Iowa State get White. His son, Royce II, would be born on Feb. 11, 2011, and White wanted to be close to home. "We're three hours down the road on Interstate 35," Iowa State Coach Fred Hoiberg said.

It helped that White knew Hoiberg, the former Iowa State star, had played for the Minnesota Timberwolves.

"Immediately, we hit it off," Hoiberg said.

Listed at 6-foot-8 and 270 pounds, White has to be the biggest point guard-like college player since — who, Earvin "Magic" Johnson?

The 10 days of practice in preparation for a tour of Italy last summer led Hoiberg to make White the initiator of Iowa State's offense.

"We were able to experiment with a lot of different lineups," said Hoiberg, who needed to replace an All-Big 12 point guard from the 2010-11 season. "That's when we found that he was going to be as good an option as anybody."

White is different from everybody.

"We don't have anybody who plays like him, obviously," UConn Coach Jim Calhoun said before White scored 15 points and grabbed 13 rebounds against the Huskies. "... He's got some (Kevin) McHale stuff inside. Right now, I wouldn't consider him a great shooter outside. But he just does things to help his team win."

Hoiberg spoke of UK throwing multiple looks at White. UConn opened its game with 6-10 Andre Drummond on White. Opponents have also gone as small as using quick 6-footers to contain White, the Iowa State coach said.

"We have a package for everything," Hoiberg said. "You try to exploit the way a team defends us."

White voiced no regrets about playing for Iowa State rather than Kentucky.

"Oh, no," White said. "Cyclone Nation fans are the best. Ames is one of the best places you can possibly be."

One of the worst places White can be is on an airplane. He's not claustrophobic.

"My anxiety tells my body flying is a threat," he said.

Facing Kentucky on Saturday night is challenging, not threatening.

"I can do a lot of things on the court," White said. "I've never been scared in that department."

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader