HOUSTON — Throughout the 2011 NCAA Tournament, Darius Miller and Shelvin Mack have ended their almost daily talks/texts with the same message.
See you in Houston.
Wednesday night, the Kentucky forward and the Butler guard did just that.
On the day he and his teammates arrived in Texas, Miller dropped by Mack's hotel room. Three days before they will both perform on college basketball's biggest stage, the former Mason County star and the ex-Bryan Station standout hung out, talked a little smack and played NBA2K11.
"He was the Lakers. I was the Heat. I beat him pretty bad," said Miller, grinning.
If Butler can stop the rampaging wave of momentum that is Virginia Commonwealth University and if UK can avenge yet another early-season defeat, against Connecticut, in Saturday's Final Four, Monday's national championship will have something rare.
Best friends battling it out for the national title.
Miller and Mack were eighth-graders, a pair of Kentuckians playing on a Cincinnati AAU team, when they first met.
Says Mack of Miller: "I thought he was a little weird. He just wouldn't say anything."
Says Miller of Mack: "He talked a lot. Pretty much all the time. I didn't need to say anything."
Back then, neither would have guessed that they had sown the seeds of an unshakable friendship.
"I don't believe Shelvin has a better friend than Darius," Mack's mother, Victoria Guy, said Tuesday.
Brian Miller says his son and Mack "text or talk every day. We've had Shelvin up here in Maysville. I know Darius has visited him. Just very close."
In their high school days, it was the 6-foot-7 Miller who drew most of the accolades. He led Mason County to the 2008 state championship, was named Sweet Sixteen MVP and Mr. Basketball that season.
At Bryan Station, Mack was a star in his own right but always seemed to fly beneath the radar with the big-time college recruiters.
Miller and Mack discussed going to the same school. Their offers never really matched up.
Miller chose Kentucky over Illinois, Louisville and Cincinnati. Butler swooped in and got a commitment from Mack before the big schools made offers.
Later in his senior year, schools such as Tennessee and Kentucky inquired about the Bryan Station star. Mack held firm to his word to Butler.
"That showed great character," Bulldogs Coach Brad Stevens said, "and that translates into how he's played on the court."
In college, at least until the second half of this season, Mack and Miller had seen their fortunes reverse.
While Miller, the quiet one, battled against a seemingly self-imposed passivity that often undermined his own ability, Mack emerged during last season's NCAA Tournament as a national-level star.
In what we thought then was Butler's once-in-a-lifetime run to the national title game, Mack made the All-Tournament teams for the West Regional and the Final Four.
"He gave me a hard time all summer, about him being in the Final Four and me not," Miller said. "What could I say? He got there. We didn't."
This season, both Mack and Miller had struggles early on.
In what became a two-point loss at Mississippi, Miller passed up what could have been a game-clinching shot. That was part of a four-game stretch in which he failed to score in double figures.
Mack had his own problems. Over nine games, from Jan. 14 through Feb. 10, his outside shot went AWOL. The 6-3 guard fired 52 three-point attempts in the stretch and made a paltry 12 of them.
During those tough times, the two friends turned to each other.
"I'd tell Darius not to concentrate only on the things he was doing wrong," Mack said. "He was still doing things that don't show up in the box score to help his team. I told him not to lose faith."
Said Miller: "I won't say we talk every day, but pretty close to it. We spend a lot of time talking basketball, about each other's games. He knows my game, and I know his. So we can help each other."
Down the stretch of their junior years, Miller and Mack have each lived the storybook.
Miller put together a string of 10 straight double-figure scoring games and won MVP honors in the Southeastern Conference Tournament. In the victory over North Carolina that put UK in the Final Four, Miller (11 points) was an unsung hero.
Mack has again been a lion in March. He had 30 in Butler's upset of No. 1 seed Pittsburgh, 27 in the overtime victory over Florida that returned the Bulldogs to the national semifinals.
So, just as they promised each other, Miller and Mack are together in Texas.
If their teams can win one more, they will find out what it is like to face your best friend with the national title at stake.
Says Mack: "Oh yeah, I've thought about it. We're like brothers. We know everything about each other's game. It would be a tough matchup for both of us."
Says Miller: "I think it would be a great experience. I don't know if there would be an advantage either way. We would both be going after the win so bad, especially playing against each other."
See you in Houston.