UK Men's Basketball

Mark Story: Darius Miller is Mason County's reason to stay true Blue

Kentucky guard Darius Miller (1) reacts to hitting a shot as #1 Kentucky played #5 North Carolina in the first half   on Saturday December 3, 2011  in Lexington, Ky.
Kentucky guard Darius Miller (1) reacts to hitting a shot as #1 Kentucky played #5 North Carolina in the first half on Saturday December 3, 2011 in Lexington, Ky. ©2011

There is always extra scrutiny on in-state basketball players who sign with Kentucky. Yet for Darius Miller, wearing the UK blue-and-white came with an extra load.

Miller's presence at Kentucky came at a time when his basketball-mad home, Mason County, had seen its feelings hurt by UK. In 2004, Kentucky declined to offer a scholarship to Mason County star Chris Lofton. The spurned guard went on to become a star at Tennessee.

In 2006, to reward the school that made a spot for one of their own, Maysville held a celebration of Lofton. Then-UT coach Bruce Pearl came to speak. The town decked itself out in UT orange. When Pearl entered the Mason County gymnasium, the high school pep band played Rocky Top.

In reaction, at least some Kentucky fans in the rest of the state were up in arms. Famously, one called a Lexington radio sports talk show to propose that the Ohio River be rerouted in such a way as to detach Mason County from the rest of the commonwealth.

"There are a lot of UK fans back home. There have been since I was little," Miller said. "Some of them, I guess, kind of changed over to Tennessee fans when Chris didn't get to come here."

When Miller got the chance that Lofton didn't — to sign with UK — he not only faced the pressure of an in-state player playing at Kentucky but carried the status of one-man peace delegation between his state university and his hoops-loving hometown.

Billy G.'s 'mind games'

Darius Miller is old-school. In a one-and-done world, Miller has had a throwback UK career. He has played four seasons, and gotten better every year.

When UK faces Georgia Thursday night in Rupp Arena, the 6-foot-8 Miller and fellow senior Eloy Vargas will run through the hoops and be serenaded with My Old Kentucky Home as part of Kentucky's traditional senior send-off.

"I don't know if I'll cry," Miller said. "Even if I want to, I don't know if I will let myself. But it is going to be an emotional time. I've been here a long time and been through a lot."

Miller played his freshman year (5.3 points, 3.1 rebounds) under Billy Gillispie. It was a turbulent time. Kentucky lost (22-14) far more often than Kentucky is accustomed to losing, and wound up in the NIT.

An adherent of Bob Knight-style motivational techniques, Gillispie frequently directed his cajoling toward Miller, a player perceived to have a high skill level but a sometimes passive approach.

"It's very difficult when someone is playing mind games with you every day," Brian Miller, Darius's father, said. "There's no question, that was a challenging year."

It ended with Gillispie being fired and John Calipari hired. Cal brought an immediate and dramatic enhancement in Kentucky's talent level.

As a sophomore, Miller (6.5 points, 2.5 rebounds) played a supporting role on a team led by freshman stars John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe.

After that season ended one victory short of the Final Four, UK sent five early entrants into the first round of the NBA Draft. So as a junior, Miller had to adapt to a new crop of lavishly hyped freshmen, Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb.

Interestingly, for two coaches as different as Gillispie and Calipari, both have faced the same challenge with Miller. Impelling the player to allow his talent to surmount what sometimes seems a self-imposed passivity.

When Miller threw down a monster slam this season in a victory over Mississippi, Calipari said "that dunk was one of the biggest plays I've ever seen him make. My point is, if you can do that, why isn't that you (all the time)?"

Becoming UK's 'Closer'

In a sense, the moment of truth in Miller's UK career came during his junior season at Mississippi.

With Kentucky clinging to a one-point lead late in the game but with the shot clock winding down, Miller twice had open looks for potential game-clinching shots — but passed both up. UK wound up with a rushed three-point shot from DeAndre Liggins that missed. Ole Miss won on a Chris Warren three-pointer.

It is a moment that could have broken Miller. Instead, it seemed to turn his UK career for the better.

Down the stretch of his junior season (10.9 points, 4.6 rebounds), Miller was a force. He scored in double figures in 10 straight games. He earned SEC Tournament MVP honors.

Facing North Carolina in the 2011 NCAA East Regional finals with the Final Four at stake, Miller was an unsung hero who made several big plays that helped Kentucky return to college basketball's biggest stage for the first time since 1998.

This season began with another Calipari talent infusion of freshmen, including Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague.

A senior who had been a starter on a Final Four team, Miller was asked to come off the bench with Kidd-Gilchrist starting at small forward. He could have balked. Miller accepted the sixth-man role without complaint.

"I love Darius Miller for who he is," Kidd-Gilchrist said. "He's a brother to me now."

As a senior, Miller has emerged as something of Kentucky's Mariano Rivera: The guy who closes out victories.

In tight road wins at Vanderbilt and at Mississippi State and in a close home victory over Vandy, the Mason County product hit big shots down the stretch.

"He's staying confident no matter how many times he misses," UK forward Terrence Jones said of Miller. "I think that is the best change about his game, not worrying about his last shot, and he just keeps shooting."

Said Calipari: "I'm really proud of the strides (Miller's) made as far as being assertive."

Healing Mason's wounds

Miller is set to leave Kentucky with an impressive array of achievements. He is already a member of the 1,000-point club. He is the only Kentucky player to play in every game of what is currently a 51-contest home winning streak.

If, as many expect, UK wins the school's eighth NCAA championship in 2012, Miller will become the first player in state history to win a Kentucky boys' high school state championship, Mr. Basketball honors (he did both at Mason County in 2008) and an NCAA title at UK.

(Ex-Male High and Louisville star Darrell Griffith is the only male player ever to hit the "triple crown" of Kentucky basketball anywhere.)

And, yes, in his hometown, Miller's success at UK does seem to have healed any lingering ill will toward the state university that followed Kentucky's snub of Chris Lofton.

Steve Appelman, the Mason County High School principal, says folks in Maysville have pulled out all the stops this winter trying to get tickets to see Miller play for Kentucky in Rupp Arena while they still can.

"I know people have been on StubHub, hitting up state legislators, anything they can think of," Appelman said. "I know people were hurt with what happened with Chris, but you might say time and Darius have healed those wounds."

Danny Weddle, longtime radio play-by-play voice of Mason County sports, said "some people here thought (Miller) should have gotten to start this year, but the way he handled that himself did a lot to lay that to rest. Mostly, people here just want number eight and are excited that Darius is such a big part of that."

Chris O'Hearn, the Mason County boys' hoops coach, said Miller "has done everything you are supposed to do in college. He stayed four years. He's going to get his degree. He's gotten better every year. Whether he's started or not starting, he's been totally unselfish and totally a team-first guy."

Now, thanks to Darius Miller, there are no more calls on Lexington talk radio for a massive water project to reroute the Ohio River and cut off Mason County from Kentucky.

"Hopefully, after Chris, fans back home switched back over (to UK) with me," Miller said. "Me being here, it means a lot to them. It meant a lot to me, too, knowing how important it is to them."

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