The area under a basket is a confined space where tall guys collide. That gave Okaro White a distinct advantage in high school. He dominated for three seasons at Clearwater as a post player because, at 6 feet 8, he was taller than everyone else.
But that wasn't enough for White to thrive once he got to Florida State. Playing against athletes who might have been linebackers or defensive ends in another era, the freshman knew his size would be just as important as his height if he hoped to score near the basket.
White has not turned himself into a copycat of his brawnier teammates, and he still looks like a pencil next to some of his opponents in the ACC, which starts its conference tournament today. The Seminoles, the No. 3 seed, face the Virginia Tech-Georgia Tech winner at 9 p.m. Friday.
But there is no question White has bulked up and begun to resemble what a modern-day college forward should look like. Through a strenuous weight-training program that had him lifting six days a week in the offseason, White has reached 201 pounds, 18 above his usual playing weight as a senior in high school.
"I knew I needed to get stronger, and I worked hard this summer," he said. "The coaches wanted me to get bigger, and I did, too. I'm never going to be that super big, massive dude. But the size has helped."
As White's shoulders, triceps and biceps have expanded, so has his role. In January he had a steal that sealed FSU's win over then-No. 1 Duke. Last month he tied for the team lead in points (17) and led the team in rebounds (seven) in a win over Miami.
"This season has been great for me," White said. "It's definitely more than I expected."
With injuries to the frontcourt, a more robust White has been the answer to the Seminoles' deficiencies down low. Another benefit of White's added upper-body strength is that he has been able to stay healthy. He was hobbled by an ankle injury his senior season at Clearwater.
"(White) has played well beyond his years this season, yet he still has so much to learn and so much room to grow," FSU coach Leonard Hamilton said. "He has not even scratched the surface of where we expect him to be during the remainder of his career at Florida State."
To win the ACC tournament title, FSU will have to maneuver through a difficult schedule that could provide White with matchups against other former Tampa Bay area standouts.
Gabe Moton, from St. Petersburg, is a key reserve for No. 5 seed Boston College. Top-seeded North Carolina is led by John Henson, from Sickles High, who this week was named the ACC's defensive player of year.
Then there's Luke Loucks, a former Clearwater two-sport athlete who has been with the Seminoles three seasons. White played with Loucks for two seasons at Clearwater. Loucks got White interested in going to FSU. In 2009 White attended the ACC tournament to cheer on Loucks.
"Luke is a great guy and has been a real mentor for me," White said. "It was nice having somebody already up here who could show me where my classes were, basically just show me the ropes."
Still, having a former high school teammate around wasn't enough to keep White from getting homesick. As the grueling workouts stretched into the fall, White constantly thought about visiting his mom, Charmine, in Clearwater.
"My family has been up to see me, and my mom makes sure everything is straight where I live," White said. "But about three months out, I was really missing home. Then the season came, and that kind of went away, mostly because I was back on the court playing the sport that I love."