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January 20, 2007

White gets career back on track under Sampson

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As soon as he took over as Indiana's coach last spring, Kelvin Sampson had to begin recruiting.

And he didn't even have to leave campus to pursue his most important target.

Sampson persuaded D.J. White to stay at Indiana instead of transferring out of frustration over the departure of former coach Mike Davis. That sales pitch has helped catapult Indiana near the top of the Big Ten standings.

After missing nearly the entire 2005-06 season with an injured left foot, White has come back with a vengeance. Indiana's scoring and rebounding leader will seek his third consecutive double-double Saturday when the Hoosiers play at Connecticut.

"He is playing at a high level and maybe as good as any big man in our league," Iowa coach Steve Alford said.

White's emergence shouldn't have come as a surprise.

Two years ago, White earned Rivals.com freshman All-America honors and led all Big Ten freshmen in scoring (13.3), blocks (2.2) and field-goal percentage (.572).

But he followed that dream season by enduring a year-long nightmare.

White broke his left foot in an exhibition game before his sophomore year and didn't return to action until mid-December. He then played only five games before injuring a different part of his foot and sitting out the rest of the season.

"It was very frustrating,'' White said. "I came back from the first injury, play five games and we're on a winning streak and in the top 10 in the nation. Then I went down and the team just went backward."

White's disappointment continued with the resignation of Davis.

Indiana guard Robert Vaden reacted to the move by transferring to Alabama-Birmingham, where Davis now coaches. White admits he also briefly considered leaving Indiana.

He certainly had reason to feel tempted. White went to high school in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and could have returned to his home state by following Davis to UAB.

White eventually decided to stay at Indiana because he believed in Sampson and couldn't bear the thought of sitting out one more year. NCAA rules would have made White ineligible to play this season if he'd transferred to another Division I school.

"I always felt I was going to stay, but I had to weigh my options and see what the best situation was for me and my family," White said. "The best situation was here. I didn't want to sit out another year. That would have been two years without something I love doing."

Indiana's new coach has helped turn White into a new kind of player.

Sampson wanted White to develop into more of a physical presence while also staying well-conditioned enough to run the floor throughout the bruising Big Ten schedule. The 6-foot-9 forward worked tirelessly on his rebounding throughout the offseason and also spent additional time in the weight room.

"He saw himself as Tracy McGrady, not Eddy Curry," Sampson said. "He was more of a face-up kind of guy. D.J.'s never been a back-to-the-basket scorer. If you saw him in high school and he scored, it was usually with a jump shot. He's not a kid that went and posted up with his back to the basket.

"We're not trying to recreate him. We're just trying to fit him in where we need him to play."

The results didn't come at first.

White said his foot hasn't bothered him all season, but he needed time to adjust to Sampson's style and shake off the rust from his long layoff.

"I've had an up-and-down year," White said. "I started off slow. I was just trying to get back in the swing of things after taking a year off. In the last month or so, I feel I've come on strong with my defensive rebounding."

The low point came Jan. 2 when freshman phenom Greg Oden outplayed him in Ohio State's 74-67 victory over Indiana. White shot 3-of-14 from the field and scored 11 points in that game, while Oden compiled 21 points and four blocked shots.

Indiana hasn't lost since. White's a big reason why.

White has shot 64 percent while averaging 17.4 points and 2.6 blocks per game during the Hoosiers' five-game winning streak. He shot 10-of-13 and collected 23 points and 12 rebounds tying career highs in both categories Wednesday in a 71-64 victory over Iowa.

"He's a much better player today than a month ago," Sampson said, "and that's encouraging to us."

Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun takes it a step further.

"White's playing, in my opinion, the best basketball of his career," Calhoun said.

While he enjoys hearing the compliments from rival coaches, White still sees room for improvement.

His coach agrees with that assessment.

Sampson recently encouraged White to go to his left more as a way of diversifying his game and making him tougher to defend. White responded with this recent four-game surge.

That's one thing Sampson loves about his star forward. White welcomes constructive criticism instead of complaining about it.

"He's a wonderful, wonderful kid to coach," Sampson said. "I love him to death just because of his attitude. If I told him to run through that wall, he'd say, 'Coach, can I get a running start?' ''

White admits he needed time to adjust to Sampson's hard-nosed approach, but he has since adjusted to his new coach's style.

The proof is evident in White's numbers. White is on pace to set career highs in scoring (14.3), rebounding (7.3), blocks (2.6) and assists (1.6) per game.

"He stuck with me throughout everything and kept telling me things are going to come," White said. "He told me not to rush things and just play. That's what I'm trying to right now."

Sampson is equally happy that White stuck with him.

For more coverage of the Indiana Hoosiers, check out Peegs.com.

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