Smith: 'Never say never' to return

Updated: February 5, 2010, 3:27 PM ET
Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS -- Even though Royce White proved to be a rather significant distraction in his short time on campus, Minnesota coach Tubby Smith said he would "never say never" when asked if the prized recruit who never played a game could one day return to the Golden Gophers.

White left school on Wednesday after a series of legal entanglements kept him off the court during his freshman season.

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The saga has been one of several off-the-court distractions for the struggling Gophers (13-8, 4-5 Big Ten), who have lost four of their last five games. But Smith wasn't ready to turn his back on White just yet.

"He did everything we asked him to do," Smith said Friday, referring to White's work in the classroom and at practice. "He just has to get other areas in his life together and you never close the door on anyone. That's just the way life is. We wish him the best in trying to get his life together, and if it is a situation where he could return, I'd be willing to talk to him about it."

White was suspended last fall after an incident at the Mall of America, later pleading guilty to theft and disorderly conduct. On Monday, he was charged with trespassing in connection to an alleged theft of a laptop computer from a university dorm.

Frustrated by the legal process, White told reporters earlier this week that he no longer feels safe on campus and expressed his displeasure for the university police force that investigated the alleged theft.

His departure means he won't suit up this season, and possibly ever, for his home-state school. He won Minnesota's Mr. Basketball award as a senior last year at Hopkins High School in suburban Minneapolis and was a much-hyped recruit when he stepped on campus.

But the legal troubles soon followed, and the Gophers sorely miss his combination of size and athleticism. The remaining Gophers have been left to answer questions about White's transgressions during a season that has quickly spiraled downward after a promising start.

"The team hasn't focused on that situation much," senior co-captain Damian Johnson said. "He hasn't played with us most of the year. I feel bad for Royce. He was a friend of mine. He was a good guy. But it was a situation we didn't let bother us throughout the year."

The Gophers have also lost starting point guard Al Nolen to academic suspension for the remainder of the season. Trevor Mbakwe, a junior college transfer, has not played all season while an assault case in Miami drags on.

Smith didn't think the issues provided much of a distraction for his players. The coach just knows they miss the players on the court.

"They like and care a lot about all those guys and they are a part of the family," Smith said. "It hurts on the court because you've got a guy like Al who sets the tone for us, leading the league in deflections, second in steals. ... I'm sure in their mind-set, they're hurt and they feel for the guys.

"Whether it's a distraction, it can't help but be to some extent. But they're kids. They move on," he said.

They have to move on quickly if they hope to play themselves back into NCAA tournament bid contention. The Gophers are coming off an 85-63 blowout loss at Ohio State last weekend and play at Penn State (8-14, 0-10) on Saturday. A loss to the reeling Nittany Lions would likely doom their chances for an at-large bid.

"That outing against Ohio State was one of the worst games in the three years that I've been here," guard Blake Hoffarber said. "We have to start from scratch and go on a winning streak here."

Now that the White situation is behind them, the Gophers are focusing on the task at hand, which won't be easy.

"I'm just trying to make sure that guys don't think the season is over because of what's been going on," Johnson said. "Wisconsin started off Big Ten play 3-6 last year and finished off strong and ended up getting an NCAA berth. Guys just have to realize it's how you finish."


Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press

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