John Clay: Kentucky's Miller blossoming down the stretch

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistFebruary 27, 2011 

He was Disappearious Miller.

He was the player who was on the floor, but not in the game. He was the player with all the talent, but not enough aggressiveness, the one who passed up the big shot, who lost the key rebound, who showed flashes of what he could be, but too often fell back to what he shouldn't be.

Not anymore. Not these last four games, not when the kid with the shy smile and the bold athleticism has scored and rebounded and blossomed until Saturday afternoon before a national TV audience and against the best team record-wise in the SEC, Kentucky's junior forward not only appeared, he rose above all the others.

He is Darius Miller.

"I think he's one of the most complete players in this league," said Florida Coach Billy Donovan afterward.

Because Saturday, against Donovan's Gators, Miller proved it, all game long.

He scored a game-high 24 points, hitting nine of 15 shots. He made two of his four three-point attempts, made four of five free throws. He grabbed five rebounds, dished three assists and blocked three shots.

Most importantly, he led his Cats to a much-needed 76-68 win over the division leaders in Rupp Arena.

"I put the challenge to Darius," UK Coach John Calipari said, "just saying, 'You're as good as anybody in this conference. Please, this is your game to show it.' And he showed it."

But then Cal has stressed that before. What was the difference this day?

"I just had open looks," Miller said. "I was just trying to be aggressive, take open shots. Really, I was just playing aggressive."

If you're looking for flowery quotes from the Star of the Game, move on. He's as nice and polite a kid as you would ever want to meet, says all the right things — even apologized after not playing well in the loss at Ole Miss — and never causes a controversy.

But on the floor, Miller is transforming right before our eyes, from the player who defers to his teammates to the one who Saturday carried his teammates.

The former Mason County star scored seven points in the final 2:04 of the first half — the last three on a bucket-and-foul combination with exactly a minute remaining — that helped the Cats take a 34-33 lead at the break.

Second half, he hit a pretty floater with 14:42 left to give UK a 48-45 lead; scored a bucket inside with 12:37 left to make it 50-47, then canned a jumper from the right of the lane to increase the lead to 52-47 with 12:02 left.

But with just under five minutes remaining, he made the play of the day, coming out of nowhere off a Doron Lamb missed three-pointer to get a piece of a rebound and allow the Cats to keep the ball.

End of that possession, Miller drilled a three-pointer to boost the advantage to 69-58 with 4:10 remaining.

"It was the guts of the game," said the ever-modest Miller. "I was just trying to get us another possession."

"I think the biggest difference for him from earlier on in his career to now is he's really improved his shooting," Donovan said. "Now when you press up on him, he can go by you."

Indeed, last game, after that loss at Arkansas, a columnist wrote that this Kentucky team has not gotten better this year. But that columnist was wrong in one respect — Miller is certainly a player who has improved.

He has scored in double digits each of the last four games, including a 22-point performance in Kentucky's last home game against South Carolina.

In that stretch, Miller has averaged 18 points and 5.5 rebounds. He's made 25 of 47 shots for 53.2 percent, including 12 of 24 three-pointers. He's also blocked 10 shots. Those are numbers good enough to make people forget Disappearious Miller.

But the Darius Miller who has been improving became the Darius Miller who dominated Saturday.

"The thing for him now that's a problem," Calipari said, "is we're going to expect that kind of effort, because you're capable of it. Now, come on, bring it every game."

Reach John Clay at (859) 231-3226 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3226, or jclay@herald-leader.com. Read his blog at Kentucky.com.

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