Royce White morphs into Cyclones' leader

All things considered, this was a rough start to the week for Iowa State forward Royce White. His much-improved, NCAA tourney-bid-hunting team had a big game at Texas Tuesday, and it nearly pulled off a road win.

But "nearly" is the operative word. Iowa State fell 62-55 in Austin, as White went 1-of-7 from the free-throw line.

Of course, White is hardly the reason why the Cyclones lost. He scored 15 points on 7-of-16 from the field, grabbed 15 rebounds, dished five assists and even added two steals and a block. The rest of his team shot 13-of-44 from the field, and 5-of-20 from beyond the arc. The Cyclones' starting backcourt — Scott Christopherson, Chris Allen and Chris Babb — shot 5-of-22 overall. On the list of "reasons why Iowa State lost at Texas," White's six missed free throws ranks awfully close to the bottom.

And yet according to the Des Moines Register, there was White after the game, telling reporters about his free-throw woes without even being asked:

“Me from the free throw line was frustrating,” said White, a 51.2 percent free throw shooter. “It could have changed the game, if I started to make free throws.”

And there was White on Twitter, telling Iowa State fans he "let them down" but was working hard to correct his issues. A few minutes later, White tweeted again, thanking fans for the support and reiterating how much he had grown to love the Iowa State community:

My bad #CyclONENation...I let us down, but believe me I want to make them as bad as you guys want me to...#gettingtowork

Thank #CyclONEnation....I knew this community was the best choice #throughtheupsanddown

(A few tweets later, White even re-tweeted someone who had bumped into him at Hy-Vee, a grocery store chain near and dear to the hearts of every native Iowan. This has less to do with the thesis of this blog post, I just had to get in the Hy-Vee mention. I kind of miss those breakfasts.)

The point is, this is not the Royce White college basketball fans met two years ago, when White was a top in-state recruit for Minnesota coach Tubby Smith. Oh, sure, White was just as talented then as he is now, just as capable of dominating defenders on the low block. But he was also a mercurial personality whose bad behavior prevented him from ever stepping foot on the court in a Gophers uniform. He was arrested for allegedly shoplifting at a department store. He was named as a suspect in an on-campus laptop theft. His nadir came when he released a YouTube farewell — an overwrought, dramatic ending to a career that had never begun in the first place. He later told media he couldn't stay at Minnesota because he couldn't trust campus police. At one point, White even claimed he was done with basketball for good.

For more on White’s battle with mental health and his struggle to overcome it, check out Myron Medcalf’s must-read feature

To paraphrase the immortal words of Chris Brown: Look at White now. Not only is he playing college basketball, he's playing well. Not only is he not at odds with his team's fan base, he's a fan favorite. And not only is he taking responsibility for his own faults — at 51 percent, he's right, he does need to improve his free-throw shooting — but he's taking a leadership role, saying "my bad" for a loss in which he posted a strong double-double performance while the rest of his team couldn't hit the broad side of a barn.

An immature player would have said his team shot too many threes, that it needed to get him more looks against the Longhorns' vulnerable frontcourt. He would have been correct. If ever there was a time to lash out, a time to blame others, this was it. Instead, White — who seemed so selfish in Minneapolis, so immature — was about as mature and selfless as a 20-year-old can be.

Cyclones coach Fred Hoiberg took a risk on White and a risk on this team; we all wondered whether so many talented but apparently combustible parts could come together in such a short time. But White isn't just a talent. To his credit, he's also become a leader. Who, save for Hoiberg and maybe White himself, could have seen that coming?