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Derrick White’s improbable college hoops journey culminates at final CU home game

Derrick White is leading Colorado in scoring (17.0 points per game), assists (4.3 per game), steals (38), and blocked shots (44).
Jeremy Papasso / Staff Photographer
Derrick White is leading Colorado in scoring (17.0 points per game), assists (4.3 per game), steals (38), and blocked shots (44).

CU men’s basketball preview: Cal

MATCHUP: Cal Golden Bears (19-10, 10-7 Pac-12 Conference) at Colorado Buffaloes (17-13, 7-10).

GAME TIME: Saturday, noon, Coors Events Center.

BROADCAST: TV — Pac-12 Network; Radio — 850 AM and 94.1 FM.

Cal — Cuonzo Martin, 3rd season (60-36, 184-118 overall); Colorado — Tad Boyle, 7th season (147-93, 203-159 overall).

LEADERS: Cal — Scoring: F Ivan Rabb, So., 14.4 ppg; Rebounding: Rabb, 10.6 rpg; Assists: G Charlie Moore, Fr., 3.8 apg. Colorado — Scoring: G Derrick White, Sr., 17.0 ppg; Rebounding: F Wesley Gordon, Sr., and G George King, Jr., 6.8 rpg; Assists: White, 4.3 apg.

NOTABLE: Not only is Cal battling to stay on the right side of the NCAA Tournament bubble, but the Bears also are battling Utah for the No. 4 seed in the Pac-12 tournament, the final spot awarded a first-round bye…The Bears are coming off a 30-point loss Thursday night at Utah and have lost four of their past five games…CU suffered a 77-66 loss at Cal on Feb. 5. The Buffs played without Gordon and fellow senior Xavier Johnson, who served the first game of a two-game suspension for a violation of team rules. White led the way that day with 25 points…Coach Tad Boyle said freshman guard Bryce Peters remains on indefinite suspension heading into Saturday’s game…Cal has lost nine of 11 games in Boulder…CU can still land anywhere between the seventh and ninth seeds for the Pac-12 tournament, which begins Wednesday in Las Vegas.

Few mentors have encouraged and motivated Derrick White more throughout his uniquely nomadic basketball career than Marcus Mason.

And yet even Mason figured White landed just about where he belonged five years ago when the skinny kid from Legend High School in Parker began his Division II career at Colorado-Colorado Springs.

White’s improbable journey from an overlooked and undersized high school prospect to a possible All-Pac-12 Conference selection comes full circle Saturday, when White plays the final regular season home game of his brief Division I career alongside fellow seniors Wesley Gordon, Xavier Johnson, and Josh Fortune as Colorado takes on Cal at the Coors Events Center.

“My first impression was, he wasn’t really that good,” Mason said of his initial impressions of White when he still was in junior high. “He had solid skills. But at that time there was no way I could project him being a college player or even a top-level high school player.

“But he always had a high basketball IQ. Whenever I explained college basketball concepts to him, he always got it. I was always concerned with him with his overall size and athleticism at that stage. When he went to UCCS and came back after his freshman year, he really turned a corner.”

Mason had just finished a stint as an assistant coach at the University of Denver, where he coached former CU assistant (and current DU head coach) Rodney Billups when he was a star point guard for the Pioneers. Mason was beginning a career as a local club coach (he now works at the Nothing But Net program and serves on the executive staff of the Chauncey Billups Elite Basketball Academy) when he began putting White through private workouts.

In a tale that has been widely repeated throughout White’s breakout season, he famously grew four inches between his senior season and Legend and his freshman year at UCCS. At 6-foot-5 the overlooked high school player became a Division II All-American and the owner of numerous school records in Colorado Springs. White admits he considered making the move to a Division I program following his sophomore season, but he didn’t want to take that plunge unless he could play against the best competition college basketball had to offer.

“I thought about it after my sophomore year, but I felt like if I was going to make the move I wanted to go to the top,” White said. “I didn’t know if I transferred out (after sophomore year) if I’d be at CU. Maybe like the Mountain West. I don’t know. I thought about it but it probably wasn’t the best timing.

“It’s been a fun season, going to Arizona and going to Oregon and stuff like that. Stuff you dream about when you’re a kid watching TV. It’s been a fun ride competing at that level and I’m looking forward to what we’ve got left here in the season.”

White has made the most of his lone season with the Buffs and has been even better than advertised, leading CU in scoring (17.0 points per game), assists (4.3 per game), steals (38), and blocked shots (44). He has shot an impressive .508 from the field and is CU’s leader in free throw attempts, where he is connecting at an 82 percent rate.

Some mock NBA drafts have started penciling in White late in the second round. Even Mason admits if White continues to improve at the ridiculous rate he’s shown the past few years “he definitely will be an NBA player.” And even though he spent only one year on the floor at CU, head coach Tad Boyle believes White’s remarkable season compares favorably alongside the biggest figures in the program’s history.

“He’s the real deal,” Boyle said. “You look at what he’s done for this team, and you can make a case that he’s the most valuable player we’ve had on a team since our coaching staff has been here. I wasn’t here when Chauncey Billups was here or David Harrison, but Derrick White is so important to what we do offensively.”

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