AMES, Iowa — Iowa State star Royce White was at the free throw line with just 1:47 left in the game against mighty Kansas with a chance to give the Cyclones a five-point lead.
Nerve-racking? Sure. And especially for White, who has had an anxiety disorder since childhood and awoke from a nightmare just the morning of Saturday's game in which he couldn't make a free throw. White dashed off to Iowa State's gym to hoist some shots in the hope that his dream wouldn't become a reality.
It didn't. White capped a brilliant 18-point, nine-rebound game by sinking those crucial two free throws. The Cyclones (15-6, 5-3 Big 12) went on to beat then-No. 5 Kansas 72-64, and White overcame yet another private episode of anxiety on a very public stage.
"To an extent it's almost a good thing. It's almost a gift in the sense because I went to the gym and I really focused on the free throws and I got in the game and I was really focused on that," White said of his anxiety. "Sometimes it's a curse too because my fatigue level is always real high because of it. I never get to sleep."
White continues to battle his problem with the help of doctors and medication, but simply being able to play basketball again after two lost seasons has been a blessing for the personable sophomore who is making Big 12 coaches nervous on a nightly basis.
White's long journey to Iowa State has been well documented. A top national recruit from Minneapolis, White struggled through legal issues and a rift with coach Tubby Smith and left Minnesota without playing a game. He had to sit out all of last season as a transfer student.
White was named this season's Big 12's preseason Newcomer of the Year anyway, and he has established himself as one of the toughest matchups in the Big 12 and across the nation.
The 6-foot-8, 270-pound White leads the Cyclones with 13.6 points, 9.6 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game, and is probably the strongest player the Cyclones have ever had. He shattered Iowa State's weightlifting marks over the summer, bench-pressing 185 pounds 28 times with a personal best of 365 pounds.
White's hands stretch nearly a foot from thumb to pinkie, and he can palm the ball as though it's a grapefruit. Those massive mitts come in handy when he decides to attack the rim. White, in fact, often gets the Cyclones into their offensive sets in transition, then settles into the paint for an easy bucket.
"He's been terrific," Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg. "It's a nice luxury to have a guy like that at 6-foot-8 that can make plays and get your team into an offense."
Kansas State coach Frank Martin said White reminds him of former Big 12 matchup nightmares like Kevin Durant, Michael Beasley and Blake Griffin. Missouri coach Frank Haith has compared White's ability to handle the ball as a big man to Magic Johnson, and Hoiberg has said that White's passing skills for his size remind him of former Minnesota Timberwolves teammate Kevin Garnett.
White is on pace to become the first player to lead the Cyclones in points, rebounds and assists since Hoiberg did it in 1994.
"He's a pro. I wish I could give you some scientific explanation for it," said Martin, whose Wildcats (15-5, 4-4) play at Iowa State on Tuesday. "You're talking about a guy who's a high-level athlete that has a high skill level and also has a tremendous understanding of how to play."
The free throw line has been a problem for White. He's shooting just 51.4 percent — two points worse than his percentage from the floor — and just 41.7 percent in conference games. There have been air balls.
"It's extremely tough. Royce doesn't sleep very much," Hoiberg said. "When he gets to the free throw line and he has a tough start, it weighs on his mind. He's an intelligent kid and he thinks a lot out there, and I'm sure a lot of it has to do with his anxiety."
White's hardly the only reason the Cyclones are relevant in the Big 12 for the first time in years. Fellow transfers Chris Allen and Chris Babb have solidified Iowa State's backcourt alongside senior sharpshooter Scott Christopherson, and sophomore Melvin Ejim has emerged from a prolonged slump to give the Cyclones a boost on the wing.
But White has become the focal point for Iowa State as it makes a push for its first NCAA tournament berth since 2005. The pressure on White will only intensify as March draws closer, and even White isn't sure how he'll handle all of it.
So far, White hasn't let his anxiety disorder prevent him from realizing his immense potential.
"It's getting better and better with each game, and I think the stage of the last game really played on my mind as far as my anxiety goes," he said. "But my team supports me and the coaching staff supports me, and that positive reinforcement is helping me get through it."