FINDLAY — The news got to Alex White just how you would expect it to get to a college student these days.
His phone started blowing up.
The announcement came earlier this week that White, a University of Findlay senior and a 2015 Lakota East High School graduate, was part of the Bevo Francis Award watch list. That award is given annually to the player who has the best overall season within small college basketball.
“I was actually in class,” White said. “My girlfriend was blowing up my phone with everything. Then I get a text from my mom and dad with congratulations. I was super excited, super honored. It kind of came out of nowhere.”
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It’s been that kind of season thus far for White, a 6-foot-7, 240-pound forward. He’s the only Great Midwest Athletic Conference player on the Bevo Francis list, which includes 100 players from NCAA Division II and III, NAIA Division I and II, the United States Collegiate Athletic Association and the National Christian College Athletic Association.
White is averaging a team-leading 18.1 points and 9.5 rebounds per game for Findlay, which is 14-2 and ranked 12th nationally in Division II. He’s been a model of efficiency, shooting 51.9 percent from the field, 35.5 percent from beyond the arc and 72.7 percent from the foul line.
The first cut of players for the Bevo Francis Award will happen Feb. 15 and will chop the list in half to 50 players. One month later, that list will be trimmed in half again to 25, and on April 6, finalists will be announced. The winner will be named April 8.
Findlay’s Taren Sullivan made the cut last season as one of the top 50 players. Criteria include individual statistics, team success, awards and personal character.
“Given the season that Alex has had to date, I’m not surprised,” Findlay coach Charlie Ernst said. “We’ve had a good program for a long time, and I think that always helps at all levels. Voters tend to migrate to those kinds of programs.
“While Alex wasn’t a big scorer the last three years, he was a name that people were familiar with because he’s had tremendous value in our program. I think it’s a well-deserved honor.”
White is focused on leading the Oilers to the G-MAC title and a berth in the NCAA Tournament. He views the individual recognition as a bonus.
“I didn’t see myself having this going into the season, but now that I’m playing the way I am, it’s the full expectation,” White said. “There is still room for improvement. I’m working on it every day. But I would say right now I’m probably playing the best basketball I’ve ever played.”
A steady progression
White came to Findlay after considering several Division I programs. He made an official visit to Niagara (N.Y.) and quickly realized he didn’t want to go somewhere that required flying.
Findlay entered the picture late in the process, but when White visited the Northwest Ohio campus, he felt an immediate connection. Certainly it didn’t hurt that the Oilers are perennial national contenders at the Division II level.
“I just fit in right away with the team and the history, and it was only two hours straight up 75,” White said. “Realistically, that’s what brought me here. There was a family feel.”
His career has been marked by steady improvement and consistency. His scoring and rebounding averages have gone up every year. He’s never shot below 50 percent from the field.
White played in every game off the bench as a freshman, and he started the first 11 games of his sophomore year. But on Dec. 29, 2016, his life took a sharp turn.
Findlay was hosting Trevecca Nazarene. White played eight minutes. He had 10 points, six rebounds, a steal and a block.
“I was playing really well, then it happened,” White said. “It was actually a play that I used to do in high school a lot. I jumped the passing lane and stole the ball for a breakaway. There was a guy coming with me. I stepped like I was going to try to get a foul, and I kind of just felt a pop in my right knee.
“So I go down, come out and don’t play the rest of the first half. The doctors tell me I’m good to go, so I’m about to go warm up for the second half. I’m like first in line for a layup, and I come down and it just snaps. I feel a crack, it buckles, everything. I ended up having a torn ACL and torn meniscus.”
The dreaded knee surgery coudn’t be avoided … it was performed just over a month later on Feb. 2. Adding to that generally depressing scenario was the fact that White couldn’t redshirt because he played in too many games.
So he went through rehab and watched.
“Six weeks of crutches,” White said. “That was the first injury I’ve ever had. I never missed a game in high school, and I don’t think I missed a practice. I didn’t miss a practice my freshman year here.
“Once I came back after surgery, I’d rehab and watch practice every day. On game days, I would sit on the bench in dress clothes. It was about as bad as it sounds. If I’m being honest, it was terrible. I wouldn’t wish it on anybody.
“But at the same time, you learn a lot from watching. My basketball IQ definitely got a lot better while I was sitting out. But I don’t ever want to do it again.”
White received medical clearance to return to action the following fall, several weeks before the official start of practice for the 2017-18 campaign. He was wearing a brace on his right knee while dealing with the doubts and strange noises that come with a knee injury.
“There were times when it was really hard,” White said. “I would tweak it all the time when I was moving. I would be like, ‘Oh my God, I just tore it again.’ Then five minutes later it’s like, ‘Oh no, it’s fine.’ That’s how it feels when the scar tissue is tearing.”
He won more mental battles than he lost and was an every-game starter for Findlay last year.
White averaged 9.6 points and 6.6 boards per game on a senior-powered team that didn’t need him to be a consistent scorer. The Oilers went 28-5 and made it to the NCAA Midwest Regional final.
Ernst knew White needed to do more scoring as a senior, probably a lot more. There was no questioning his ability to do it, but it was a role that White hadn’t experienced since his days at Lakota East.
“The exodus was 4,500 points that graduated from our team a year ago,” Ernst said. “Early in his career, I think Alex’s greatest value to our team was on the defensive end and on the glass. He’s a very unselfish kid by nature, so he understood the talent level around him last year and just tried to play his role.
“We talked about it with him after last year that he was going to have to shoulder a lot more offensive responsibility this year. Of course he was more than happy to talk about it, but it’s one thing to talk about it and it’s another thing to put the offseason work in. I told him how proud I was of him for the offseason he had to get to this point.”
White had a career game Jan. 5 at Alderson Broaddus (W.Va.), battering the Battlers with a 35-point, 15-rebound performance. He’s cracked the 20-point mark seven times this year.
“I feel like my junior year was a real test for me coming back,” said White, who shares captain duties with fellow senior Trey Smith. “It was like, ‘Am I going to be a bust coming back from an injury or am I actually going to do something with my career?’ That year gave me a lot of confidence and kind of set up my role for this year.
“I would describe myself as a hard worker. In order to play at this level, you have to be able to do the little things, whether it’s diving for a loose ball or taking a charge. Defensively, if I switch on to someone, I like to believe that no one can score on me. That’s just the mentality I have to have, and I just have to back it up. Offensively, if I have any turnovers, I think that’s too many.”
Preparing ‘The East Way’
White was a consistent force during his Lakota East career, moving into the starting lineup during his freshman year and staying there. He’s the all-time leading rebounder in Lakota School District history.
Wally Vickers was the Thunderhawks’ head coach during White’s first three years, and Clint Adkins became the head coach when he was a senior.
White said his current success started during his time at East.
“You don’t play there if you don’t play defense, and you don’t play here if you don’t play defense,” White said. “Those guys really set me up and taught me what I needed to know, things that come in really handy at the next level.”
Adkins isn’t surprised by White’s collegiate success. The East coach saw the potential and growth through the years.
“He’s one of those kids that just got better and better,” Adkins said. “He never really flat-lined. He was always getting better. I think you’re seeing that in college as well. He’s just gotten bigger and stronger and more athletic. Just looking at him now, he’s a freakin’ monster. A great kid, a hard worker, a tough kid. I’ve always loved big Whitey.”
Adkins always talks about doing things “The East Way.” White said that’s more than just a slogan.
“It’s real,” he said. “It’s pretty much that hard work ethic. I can tell you right now, the stuff that I did at Lakota East was harder than it has been here, whether it’s the weight-room stuff or the conditioning or even the practices.
“While I may think that some of the stuff was unnecessary, looking back on it, that was such a huge lesson that I learned. The hard work that you have to put in at East is going to pay off, whether it’s in basketball at the next level or even if you’re in a tough situation. If you can do something ‘The East Way,’ you can do it just about anywhere.”
Nine Thunderhawks are currently playing college ball, including Evan Kuhlman at Evansville (Ind.), Andrew Emrick and Jarrett Cox at Fairmont State (W.Va.), Dylan Lowry at Hillsdale (Mich.), Adam Dieball and Mitchell Mays at Christian Brothers (Tenn.), Jalen Peck at Defiance and Isaiah Flood at Heidelberg.
Adkins has a number of players on his 2018-19 roster that figure to play at the next level as well. Senior Bash Wieland has already signed with Bellarmine, the top-ranked team in Division II.
“I have a lot of respect for the way they do things at Lakota East,” Ernst said. “Once we get a player here, we find out quickly how well they were coached. Alex played a lot as a freshman in our program, and that’s not easy to do. He was able to do that because he was so well prepared when he got here.”
Strong to the finish line
White is making a strong push toward the end of his senior season. Findlay hosts Hillsdale on Saturday in a White vs. Lowry matchup of East graduates.
The knee brace is still part of White’s everyday basketball experience. The doctors have told him he doesn’t have to wear it anymore, but he’s gotten used to it and it gives him a sense of security, so it’s still in the picture.
“It’s probably good medicine for him,” Ernst said. “He’s in the best shape of his life. We do conditioning testing that is very difficult in the fall, and for the first time in his career he not only made those marks, but he did it every single conditioning session. That’s a testament to the summer he had.
“He’s a big guy that can step out and make 3s. He’s listed at 6-7, but his wingspan is a lot more than 6-7, so he plays more like a 6-9 or a 6-10 kid. That wingspan has always been one of his true gifts from God. That and his big hands. I marvel normally once a week at his hands in terms of what he can catch. His hands are as good as anybody I’ve ever coached. He can catch about any pass and can finish quickly in awkward ways. That’s a talent that’s very hard to teach kids, and I think it’s his very best quality on offense.
“If he didn’t wear the brace, no one would even know he had a knee problem. He’s the most explosive he’s been in his career.”
White’s Findlay career had a solid start in part because of his connection with John Staley, who’s now an assistant coach under Adkins at East.
Staley was a senior player for UF when White was a freshman. The former helped the latter get acclimated to the program.
Back then, White couldn’t have imagined that he might have opportunities to keep playing beyond college. He may very well have some options overseas.
“That question is becoming more popular,” White said with a smile. “If I’m being honest, I’m leaning towards no. I think it might just be time to hang it up. But if the right opportunity comes along … we’ll see.”
He likes the atmosphere at Findlay. The Oilers get good community support, averaging 832 fans for home games.
“We fill the stands a lot of nights,” White said. “If you come here and it’s not crowded, it’s spring break or a 10-inch snow day.”
He is a young senior who won’t turn 22 until September. White is set to graduate in May with a degree in marketing and a minor in finance. Like his time on the court, his time in the classroom has also been a success.
“It’s going to be weird being a regular student for the last two months of school,” White said. “Looking back on it, when I left East, I couldn’t have predicted a basketball career like this. I think my game now is a lot different than what I thought it would be. I think just being in Findlay is a lot different than I thought it would be. But I’m really glad that I’m here.”
White By The Numbers
Here are Alex White’s career statistics with the University of Findlay basketball team (through Friday):
» Games Played: 28. Starts: 0. Points: 119 (4.3 average). Rebounds: 101 (3.6 average). Assists: 6 (0.2 average). Steals: 16 (0.6 average). Field-Goal Percentage: .566. 3-Point Percentage: .000. Free-Throw Percentage: .412
» Games Played: 11. Starts: 11. Points: 82 (7.5 average). Rebounds: 62 (5.6 average). Assists: 7 (0.6 average). Steals: 8 (0.7 average). Field-Goal Percentage: .516. 3-Point Percentage: .000. Free-Throw Percentage: .727
» Games Played: 33. Starts: 33. Points: 317 (9.6 average). Rebounds: 217 (6.6 average). Assists: 22 (0.7 average). Steals: 30 (0.9 average). Field-Goal Percentage: .547. 3-Point Percentage: .268. Free-Throw Percentage: .714
» Games Played: 16. Starts: 16. Points: 289 (18.1 average). Rebounds: 152 (9.5 average). Assists: 27 (1.7 average). Steals: 13 (0.8 average). Field-Goal Percentage: .519. 3-Point Percentage: .355. Free-Throw Percentage: .727
» Games Played: 88. Starts: 60. Points: 807 (9.2 average). Rebounds: 532 (6.1 average). Assists: 62 (0.7 average). Steals: 67 (0.8 average). Field-Goal Percentage: .538. 3-Point Percentage: .306. Free-Throw Percentage: .694