UK Men's Basketball

UK's Miller says he's ready to lead the team

More aggressive. More assertive.

That's what the University of Kentucky basketball program wants Darius Miller to be.

Raise your hand if you've read that before. It's been a recurring theme in Miller's first two UK seasons, when it was a desire rather than a necessity.

Now with UK starting fresh after sending five first-round draft picks to NBA teams, there's much more of a need for greater production and greater presence from Miller.

When asked Friday whether this coming season would introduce a new and improved Miller, the player said, "Hopefully. I guess we'll see come Sunday."

Kentucky plays the University of Windsor in the first of its three exhibitions in Canada on Sunday. The Cats play the University of Western Ontario on Monday and Windsor again on Tuesday.

Before UK's final practice prior to the trip north, Miller sounded ready to reintroduce himself.

"I feel good about me personally and the team," he said. "I think we're going to do a great job."

UK Coach John Calipari told reporters that the change he'd like from veterans Miller and DeAndre Liggins is no small request. The transition from complementary player to team leader can be like going from a tree in the school play to a leading man on Broadway.

"You go from a supporting role to a starring role, who knows how that turns out?" Calipari said. "It's like going from assistant coach to head coach. Now all suggestions have to become decisions."

Miller expressed his willingness to embrace an enhanced role.

"I'm comfortable with it," he said. "I think I'll be just fine with it."

It helps, he said, to be playing a familiar system and hearing a familiar voice for a change. As a freshman, he played for Billy Gillispie. He averaged 21.2 minutes as a role player and grew increasingly productive as the season unfolded.

As a sophomore, he and UK basketball became part of Cal State-Kentucky. He again averaged 21.2 minutes on a star-studded team.

"I guess I had to be pretty patient," Miller said of those two seasons. Then he added, "I always felt like I was a part of the team."

Now Kentucky looks for Miller to lead on and off the court.

"There might be more responsibility for me as a leader on the team," he said. "But I don't feel any more pressure because we still have the same goal." Does it need to be said that the goal is to win a national championship?

To prepare for center stage, Miller worked this off-season on getting quicker and stronger.

"That was my main goal," he said. "To try to get in the best shape I could be in. Just come back ready to go. I worked on that pretty much the whole summer."

When asked whether he actually was quicker and stronger, Miller said, "Hopefully, a lot quicker and stronger."

Calipari said Miller looks as if he's grown taller.

But it's not greater physical stature Kentucky wants from Miller this season. The Cats want a more sizable impact on the court and in the box scores.

This all sounds familiar to Chris O'Hearn, who coached Miller for Mason County. Although Miller was the team's undisputed best player (and the state's, as evidenced by being named 2008 Mr. Basketball), he could be content to stay in the background.

"He's just very, very unselfish," O'Hearn said. "That's just his personality. He's a team-first kind of guy. He's the kind of person anybody wants in their program. He's all about team."

Yet, O'Hearn acknowledged, there were times Mil ler needed to be prodded.

"He was so talented at the high school level, he could score 25 or 30 points a game," O'Hearn said. "At times, he did that. There were also times he deferred. He has to push himself to be more assertive and get that motor running full speed all the time."

For instance, in the 2008 state championship game against Holmes, Mason County found itself in a tense struggle even though the opponent chose the unusual tactic of guarding Miller with only one defender.

"He was floating on the perimeter a little too much," O'Hearn said.

After a timeout, Miller took charge and led Mason County to the state championship. Such high stakes helped O'Hearn rev Miller's motor.

"Just selling him on the fact the team needs him to do these things for the team to be successful," the Mason County coach said. "He's a competitor. He wants to win. I just had to push those competitive buttons he had and get those competitive juices flowing."