Rare senior has seen it all at Kentucky
Wildcats' Miller played alongside 36 teammates in four years
NEW ORLEANS -- Saturday will be the 151st game of Darius Miller’s convoluted college basketball career.
The final stop of his winding road is in New Orleans, where hoards of Kentucky fans rest uneasily in the Big Easy on the brink of another Final Four, the team's latest shot to erase the chagrin that’s plagued Big Blue Nation for the past 15 titleless seasons. On Saturday, Miller and his Wildcat teammates will battle intrastate rival Louisville for a spot in the national title game.
Miller’s role through it all -- through four seesawing years in Lexington, through 122 wins and 28 defeats, through two coaches and two trips to college basketball’s biggest weekend -- is a distinct one. He is the seasoned senior on a team packed with rookies. He is the last remnant of the Billy Gillespie Era, one Wildcat backers would prefer to forget altogether.
Most significant: he has been the pillar of consistency in an inconsistent time. Kentucky, a program so regularly gifted with fleeting floods of talent, also faces the unenviable task of coalescing a nearly entirely revamped roster each season after those aforementioned talents hurriedly bolt for the NBA.
It is simply the byproduct of the program’s stellar recruiting run -- luring the best high school players onto campus always invokes the risk they won’t stay for very long.
John Wall is gone. Patrick Patterson is gone. DeMarcus Cousins is gone.
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And Miller remains. He’s had a whopping 36 teammates through his four seasons in Lexington -- nine of which, including Wall, Patterson and Cousins -- now suit up for an NBA team. Each of the past three falls, much akin to clockwork, UK head coach John Calipari, who took over for a fired Gillespie following the 2009 season, has secured a top-ranked recruiting class.
Each fall, Miller was assigned with deciphering how he fit in with all of it.
“The biggest challenge with that is figuring out your role,” Miller said Friday before he and his teammates took the court for a light shootaround at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. “The good thing is that we all have one goal. Everyone is here to win a national championship. Once you figure everything out, you just play basketball.”
A shining moment on Monday night would be an appropriate close to Miller’s egoless college career, a fitting farewell for the Kentucky native that grew up a rampant Wildcat fan an hour from Lexington and went on to lead his high school team to a state championship his senior year and earn the state’s Mr. Basketball award as well.
“There is no doubt who the leader of this team is, and that’s him,” said Wildcat guard Marquis Teague, one of Miller’s six freshmen teammates this year. “He’s done it all year. He was the guy getting everyone to open gym on time. He’s leading practices, making sure we’re doing everything right.”
A perfect illustration of Miller’s humbled approach to his role within Wildcat hoops came in mid-February. In the midst of the team’s unblemished 16-0 romp through SEC play, Calipari sat his senior down in his office and told him he had decided to insert Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, one of many promising freshmen on the UK roster this season, into the starting lineup. Miller, he was told, would now have to come off the bench.
Like it had so many times before, his role was changing. He’d started 37 of 38 games for last year’s Final Four squad and four of the first five in conference play this season.
But bitterness would not consume Darius Miller.
“He didn’t complain for a minute,” said the Wildcats’ only other senior, Eloy Vargas. “Nothing about his game or his attitude change a bit.”
Miller approached the shift the same way he’d handled the challenges associated with the ever-changing slew of talents stopping by UK for a quick stayover en route to the NBA.
He rolled with it.
“It really wasn’t that difficult,” Miller said. “Coach told me it was what was best for the team, so I didn’t have a problem with it. None of that stuff really matters to me.”
His value is hard to underscore. He put up 19 points in back-to-back NCAA tournament wins on the Wildcats’ road to New Orleans. And Calipari is unable to confine him to the bench for long -- Miller still plays 26 minutes a game and is one of six Wildcats averaging double figures.
He offers the blue and white something no other player on its roster can: the experience of having seen it all before.
“It says a lot about him that he’s been able to be so consistent throughout his whole career,” Calipari said. “He’s simple in the way he thinks about things -- he just wants to win. From a coach’s perspective, you couldn’t ask for a better approach.”
Miller will step on the court Saturday two wins from cementing an indelibly unique legacy.
Through some of the program’s most transient times, he’s been the steady stand-in, offering balance, familiarity and the best semblance of continuity this program could hope for.
“He’s a guy you want on your team,” Teague added. “That’s just the best way I can put it.”