Darius Miller looks to end up-and-down career on a high note

NCAA title would cap down-and-up career

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistNovember 6, 2011 

If Darius Miller ever decided to try his hand at writing, he could be sitting on a blockbuster of a book.

The senior forward came to Kentucky for Billy Gillispie's turbulent final season. The last two seasons under John Calipari, Miller has played on some of the most talented teams in UK's regal hoops history.

"I've been through UK's toughest moments and some of its best," Miller said. "My freshman year, we were in the NIT. The next year, we went to the Elite Eight. Definitely, it's been interesting."

In a basketball program that has become synonymous with the one-and-done freshman, Miller is a genuine rarity — a good player who has stayed. At a university that has sent seven early-entry players into the past two NBA drafts, Miller will be around for his Senior Day.

Yet if the ex-Mason County High School star feels like he's starring in his own personal Left Behind series, he does not show it.

"I've had a lot of fun with this," Miller says of playing at UK. "It's just been a great experience."

Miller has certainly been on a ride.

For two-and-a-half seasons under two different head coaches, Miller was the epitome of an enigma. He would show tantalizing flashes of potential, yet all too often seemed held back by a self-imposed passivity.

"Since he was 15, we've been begging him to be more assertive offensively and take on a scorer's mentality," says Chris O'Hearn, who coached Miller at Mason County. "He's such a team-first guy, almost to a fault."

The low point of Miller's passivity came last season on Feb. 1 at Mississippi. With the shot clock running out and UK holding a one-point lead in the game's final seconds, Miller refused to take an open shot under game-deciding pressure.

Kentucky's resulting failed possession allowed Ole Miss's Chris Warren to hit a game-winning three-pointer.

Some wondered if that play would define Miller's UK career.

Instead, it turned it around.

Down the stretch of the regular season, as Kentucky built momentum toward what became the school's first Final Four run since 1998, Miller was, arguably, UK's best player.

He hit Florida for 24 points in a tough victory in Rupp Arena. He had 15 points and four rebounds in a breakthrough road win at Tennessee.

In the SEC Tournament, Miller earned MVP honors while UK rolled to its second straight title.

Yet, in a sense, the most impressive play of Miller's season came in Kentucky's tense NCAA Tournament round-of-32 matchup with West Virginia — the same team that ended the Cats' season in 2010 with a stunning Elite Eight upset.

Against Bob Huggins' bully boys in 2011, the guy who refused to take a big shot at Mississippi stuck a cold-blooded three-pointer late in the game on a day when he had not made a field goal to that point.

It was a huge bucket in what became a 71-63 revenge victory over the Men of Mazzulla.

"He was MVP of the SEC Tournament ... but he's not been consistent with it," Calipari says of Miller's play. "But I think he knows, this is his senior year, you know, let's bring it, let's do it."

Going into his final college season, the 6-foot-8 Miller says he feels like he's in a good mental place.

"I don't really feel a sense of urgency," he said. "I feel like I'm more focused than I was, more comfortable than I was."

If UK were to win two more games in the 2012 NCAA Tournament than it did in the 2011 Big Dance, Miller would make history.

No player has ever won a Kentucky high school state championship, Mr. Basketball honors — Miller won both in 2008 — and played on an NCAA championship team for UK.

Only Darrell Griffith, who won the state title with Male in 1975, Mr. Basketball in 1976 and the NCAA title with Louisville in 1980, has hit what we might call "the Triple Crown of basketball in Kentucky."

Says Miller: "I feel like we have a great shot (to win it all)."

That would supply quite an ending to Darius Miller's UK basketball book.

Reach Mark Story at (859) 231-3230 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3230, or mstory@herald-leader.com.

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