March 8, 2014
By Bob Thomas, Seminoles.com
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Okaro White is playing the best basketball of his Florida State career, which is both fitting and quite timely as the Seminoles close out the regular season Sunday at 2 p.m. against Syracuse at the Donald L. Tucker Center.
White, who will be honored along with classmates Ian Miller and Robert Gilchrist on Senior Day, understands the importance of the game. A win over No. 7 Syracuse (26-4, 13-4 ACC) would not only make for a fond farewell to the home crowd, but would give the Seminoles (18-11, 9-8) a fourth consecutive victory, while bolstering their resume in the eyes of the NCAA Tournament selection committee.
Averaging 21.3 points and 6.3 rebounds over the course of the three-game winning streak, White has hit the fast-forward button and played out in his mind just how his Senior Night should end.
"It's been playing in my head a lot of different ways - what this game and a win for the program would mean," said White, who has been a fixture at forward through all 133 games over the course of his career. "I can't really get a grasp on what it would mean. It's bigger than me and any one person. As seniors, me, Ian and Robert, we want to get this win for us and we've got our younger guys putting in the hard work for us this week. They want to get the win for us, also.
"I think this is definitely going to be the biggest game on senior night for us. Coach Hamilton has never lost a Senior Day game since he's been here. At least that's what he said. We definitely don't want to lose this one."
For the record, the Seminoles have won nine consecutive Senior Day games and 10 of 11 under head coach Leonard Hamilton. Extending that streak to 10 would position Florida State for a return trip to the NCAA Tournament after a one-year hiatus.
The versatile and selfless White has played no small part in positioning the `Noles for such an accomplishment. He scored a team-high 22 points at Pitt to launch FSU's three-game winning streak, followed with 18 at home against Georgia Tech, then helped will the `Noles to a 74-70 win at Boston College by matching his career-high with 24 points on Tuesday night.
Yet is you ask White just how close he's come to achieving everything he had hoped when he joined the `Noles following a celebrated career at Clearwater High, he is quick to note that he isn't finished yet.
"I think I'm close, but not there yet," said White, who was an integral component on the 2012 ACC Championship team, which went on to reach the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16. "I've accomplished, as part of a team, some good things while I've been here. An ACC Championships and Sweet 16 appearance and those accomplishments, thousands of players that go through college don't get to experience that.
"That's going to leave me with great memories, but you never want to finish on a bad note. You always want to finish something up on a great note, and I think we have an opportunity to do that. I'm going to try and do everything I can."
Defeating a Syracuse team that climbed to No. 1 in the national polls before losing four of its last five games since Feb. 15 would register as one of the most important ACC wins by the Seminoles in White's career. And he's had quite a few.
The Seminoles have won 41 ACC regular season games with White on the roster. Win No. 42 would leave him all alone behind former teammates Luke Loucks and Deividas Dulkys, who registered a program-best 43 league wins before departing after the magical 2012 season.
Loucks, who was the point guard at Clearwater High when White was a freshman, has a great appreciation for the growth he's seen from the two-time teammate.
"I've been close with Okaro for a long time and I'm very proud of him," said Loucks, who is currently playing professionally in Belgium. "I've watched from afar and witnessed first-hand him develop into a very good basketball player and even better young man.
"He has worked extremely hard to transform himself into a complete player and the time he has invested in his game in the offseason clearly shows every year as he continued to improve. He is one player I would want on my team every night because he never lacks intensity and desire and he always does the small things to help his team win."
"I came in as a guy who was an offensive rebounder/slasher type of a guy who evolved his game," White said. "I'm not all the way to being a full, all-round player, but I'm very close to it. A lot of it had to do with confidence.
"I was lucky to be able to play an intricate part my freshman year. The latter part of my freshman year I was very lucky to be tossed into the fire and that helped me come along quick."
White's greatest pride - on the court - is being a part of a program that has risen to new heights under Hamilton's watch, establishing the `Noles as a formidable foe every night in the tradition-rich league.
"That's just an amazing accomplishment to be a part of, because you realize you're a part of a program - the success of a program - and you'll always be a part of the rise to greatness of the program," White said. "I feel great to be a part of and it's something I really want to be attached to my name when I leave here. I want people to say I was an energy player, a tough-minded player and a defensive player who would do anything for my team."
He has been all of that and more for Hamilton.
"Okaro wanted to come here and be a part of building something," Hamilton said. "Some kids want to go someplace where a program has already been built. Okaro wanted to be a part of building on a tradition and he and Ian and Robert have all helped continue building on that success."
White's game has followed a similar arc to the Seminoles' on-floor success, as he developed from an athletic power forward to a player whose multi-faceted skills provide match-up problems for opponents at both ends of the floor. By developing his ball-handling and extending his shooting range, White is a rare, 6-foot-9 player who can draw bigger players from the basket on defense - opening up the interior for teammates - and beat them off the dribble, or with the 3-point shot.
He has also excelled around the basket in the post, where his high-energy style leads to rebounds, dunks and blocked shots.
Perhaps most importantly, he has earned a reputation for his defensive prowess.
"Defense is something that's always stuck with me my whole life," White said. "When I describe myself as a player that's what I mention first and I think that's what should stand out first."
It's not hard to show just how important White's presence is to the Seminoles' success. Because of his aggressive nature and want-to attitude at the defensive end, staying out of foul trouble is not easy for White. In FSU's 18 wins he is averaging 2.4 fouls per game - the `Noles are 12-0 when he has two or fewer. Conversely, White is averaging 4.1 fouls, severely limiting his minutes, in the 11 losses.
Not to be lost in any discussion about White is his development off the floor. In two months he will become the first of eight siblings to earn his college degree.
"May 3rd is graduation day and I've got it circled," White said. "I'm glad I'm graduating on time. I'm going to have a lot of family members here."
"His mother has been a tremendous supporter of him and he has not wanted to let her down," Hamilton said of White's academic progress. "Okaro has represented, not just his family and high school, but Florida State University and our basketball program, on an off the court in an exemplary way. He came here as a high schooler and leaves here as a man."
For his part, he'd like to give Hamilton and his staff, his teammates and FSU basketball fans, one more thing on Sunday afternoon.
"When coach Hamilton got here, the program was in bad shape," White said. "Over the years they've grinded out and have changed this program around. ... We've had history. We've always beat these Goliaths and played tough defense. Teams know that it's not going to be easy coming down to Tallahassee and beating us."