The weirdest thing happened Tuesday when Louisiana Tech coach Michael White was asked if he'd view this season as NCAA tournament-or-bust for the Bulldogs.
He gave an honest answer.
College Hoops Countdown, No. 12: Conference USA
Instead of launching into a canned one-game-at-a-time diatribe or attempting to lower expectations in hopes of over-delivering, White admitted the NCAA tournament was his team's benchmark for success or failure this season. Louisiana Tech returns four starters from a team that won 27 games a year ago but collapsed in March, dropping its final two regular season games before unraveling in a stunning WAC quarterfinal loss to ninth-seeded Texas-San Antonio.
"We've talked as a team about the NCAA tournament being our only goal," White said. "We accomplished all of our other goals last season except for that, so it has definitely simplified our goals for this season. We're striving every day to find a way into the NCAA tournament. If we don't get there, we'll be disappointed."
That a school 22 years removed from its last NCAA tournament appearance has such lofty expectations is a testament to how much White, 36, has accomplished in two-plus years at Louisiana Tech. He prepared the Bulldogs for the transition from the WAC to Conference USA this upcoming season by instilling the toughness, discipline and work ethic that once typified his playing style at Ole Miss more than a decade earlier.
Hired in spring 2011 to resuscitate a long-struggling program coming off a 2-14 season in the WAC, White has not let a lack of prior experience as a head coach stop him from performing that task with stunning speed. He won 18 games his first season and 27 his second, all with players few Division I programs besides the Bulldogs had any interest in recruiting.
Six-foot-3 junior Raheem Appleby, Louisiana Tech's lone double-digit scorer last season, weighed less than 140 pounds in high school and only received scholarship offers from the Bulldogs and a Division II college in his native Arkansas. Six-foot-9 junior Michale Kyser, the team's leading shot-blocker and rebounder, signed with White only after backing out of his letter of intent to Lamar when the school fired its coach. And Kenneth "Speedy" Smith, the WAC's assist leader last season, had zero Division I offers when White unexpectedly received a YouTube clip from the 6-foot-3 point guard late in his senior season.
"Sometimes you need good luck," White said. "Nineteen out of 20 kids, you watch their video and scratch them off the list, but Speedy was different. We loved his passing ability. We didn't know he'd be all-conference so quickly but we thought he'd be a really good player for us."
Many athletic directors have to be kicking themselves for not plucking White from Andy Kennedy's staff at Ole Miss when they had the chance. There have long been plenty of signs White would succeed as a coach, from his high basketball IQ as a point guard at Ole Miss from 1995-99, to his success in recruiting as an assistant at his alma mater, to a family that helped groom him to pursue a career in college athletics.
The son of longtime track and field coach and athletic administrator Kevin White, Michael grew up immersed in college athletics. Dinners with coaches, administrators and donors were regular occurrences throughout Michael's childhood as Kevin jumped from athletic director gigs at the University of Maine, Tulane, Arizona State and Notre Dame before taking the same job at Duke in 2008.
"College athletics really is the family business," Michael's youngest brother Brian White said. "We grew up going to Tulane games at Fogelman Arena or gymnastics practices at Arizona State and having athletes at our house or donors at our house. It became natural. Having grown up around it was an advantage for all of us because we understood things a little quicker."
Whereas middle brother Danny is the athletic director at Buffalo and youngest brother Brian is an associate athletic director at Louisiana Tech, Michael knew from a young age that his future was in coaching rather than administration. The eldest White brother was a four-year starter at point guard for Ole Miss and led the Rebels to their first-ever NCAA tournament win in 1999, but he was never under any illusion that NBA riches awaited him when his college career was over.
Former Ole Miss coach Rob Evans recalls White suggesting strategies in the huddle during timeouts or coming by his office to talk basketball for hours at a time during the offseason. Evans suggests White's basketball IQ was only exceeded at the time by his work ethic, toughness and competitiveness, qualities the point guard needed to thrive despite often being at a size and athleticism disadvantage compared to other guards in the SEC.
There was the time White thoroughly outplayed an Arkansas point guard whom reporters had suggested would have the better of the matchup leading up to the game. Or the time White pushed for Evans to run more plays for him with Ole Miss mired in a three-game losing streak, then proceeded to average 19 points per game in victories over Alabama, Vanderbilt and Kentucky.
The first time Evans caught a glimpse of White's hard-nosed approach, the point guard nearly got into a fight with several upperclassmen on the Ole Miss team during a routine pick-up game early in his freshman year.
"Michael came up to my office, and I could tell something had gone on," Evans recalled. "I said, 'The older guys don't like you, do they?' He said, 'No, they don't.' I said, 'Don't worry about it. They'll love you before it's all over.' I knew he'd get into it with them because he wasn't going to give in to them. Generally if there's a disagreement on a call, a freshman is going to give in, but Michael's not that way. He's a fighter."
One of Evans' lasting memories of White's time at Ole Miss was seeing the relationship between the point guard and his father up close. The fax machine in the Ole Miss basketball office would whir soon after every game with a note from Kevin to Michael, sometimes urging him to keep his head up after a tough loss and other times encouraging him to show more poise, toughness or leadership in certain situations.
Advice from Evans and from his father has been instrumental in Michael's rise up the coaching ladder, though now it comes via phone calls, emails and text messages rather than a fax machine. Both encouraged him to be patient during his seven-year tenure as an Ole Miss assistant and to select Louisiana Tech over Fresno State when both schools showed interest in hiring him 2 1/2 years ago.
Though Louisiana Tech hadn't been to the NCAA tournament in more than two decades and was coming off a 20-loss season, the job was a good fit for White because of his familiarity with the region and prior success recruiting the South. He assessed the strengths and weaknesses of his roster soon after arriving, implementing a full-court pressure defense and recruiting players who could thrive in that system.
"We decided to implement the press based on what we thought our recruiting base could provide us, based on this being an athletic region," White said. "Under Rob Evans as a player, we were taught pressure man in the half-court every day. A lot of those principles we teach here every day, but we've really extended it to full-court."
Full-court pressure helped elevate Louisiana Tech into contention in the WAC, but now the question is how the Bulldogs will handle a step up in competition. Conference USA lacks a dominant program now that Memphis has departed but programs like UTEP and Southern Miss have experienced recent success, while Tulsa, Charlotte and UAB have plenty of basketball pedigree.
White is cautiously optimistic about how his program will handle the transition. With four starters and 11 players returning from a 27-win team that split a pair of games with Southern Miss last year, why not?
"We accomplished so much last year that we really feel it would be disappointing if we don't make the NCAA tournament," White said.
White has set the bar high for Louisiana Tech. Now it's up to his players to eclipse it.