The first time John Calipari met Darius Miller and the Kentucky basketball team he cried. Joking or not, he says he even called Memphis’ athletic director and asked him to take him back.
Outside of Miller, the immediate future of Kentucky basketball seemed that bad.
“It’s hard to win in the Dribble Drive if no one can dribble,” Calipari said.
Miller was one of the few exceptions. After that first day of workouts – keep in mind, they didn’t include Coach Cal’s first recruiting class of John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe, plus Patrick Patterson wasn’t there – Calipari was most impressed with Miller.
He was smooth, athletic, owned a sweet floater and was the prototypical player for Calipari’s system.
Fast forward three years later and the program has come full circle. Kentucky has traded the National Invitational Tournament for national title dreams, and Miller has gone from riding the bench to the consummate senior on the best team in the country.
What a ride it’s been.
What: No. 1/1 UK (28-1, 14-0 SEC) vs. Georgia (13-15, 4-10 SEC)
When: Thursday, 9 p.m. ET
Where: Rupp Arena (23,000)
Game notes: UK | Georgia
Video interviews: Cal, Miller and Vargas
Record: 13-15, 4-10 in SEC
Head coach: Mark Fox (48-34 at Georgia)
Player to watch: Gerald Robinson (14.3 points, 4.0 rebounds, 3.8 assists)
Series history: UK leads 114-25
Last meeting: UK won 57-44 on Jan. 24
“My freshman year was kind of rough, going to the NIT and stuff like that,” Miller said Wednesday. “I felt like we had a pretty good team. We had pretty good talent on the team, but we were disappointed with how we finished out. The past couple years have been a great experience. We’ve had a really good team, really great teammates and a great coaching staff. If we can finish out this last game on a win, I’d be extremely happy.”
Miller’s first year at Kentucky was, as only Miller can describe it, “tough at times.”
The 6-foot-8 guard from Maysville, Ky., was one of the most talked about recruits in recent history. After allowing another Kentucky native, Chris Lofton, to go to Tennessee and turn into one of the best shooters the Southeastern Conference had ever seen, it was imperative to bring in a homegrown kid with talent, the reigning Kentucky Mr. Basketball no less.
The signing was seen as a huge coup for second-year head coach Billy Gillispie, but nothing went as planned during that 2008-09 season as Kentucky failed to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 18 seasons. Miller made an immediate impact, averaging 5.3 points and 3.1 rebounds, but he often drew the ire of some of the team’s struggles.
When Gillispie was dismissed and the program was on shaky ground, Miller never faltered.
“I never really planned on leaving or anything like that,” Miller said. “I’ve always had a plan of graduating here my whole time.”
Whether he would be allowed to stay or not was another matter. There was no secret Coach Cal was going to bring in a highly touted recruiting class after he was hired, and with what Calipari described as a “football team” for a roster, spots were precious, and no one was guaranteed anything.
That was until Calipari saw Miller play that first day.
“I think we were all worried about what was going to happen,” Miller said. “We had been pretty close so we were wondering if we were going to get split up. I’m happy I got to stay.”
The fortunes of the program and Miller immediately turned the following year. With Wall and Co. leading the way, Miller embraced a complementary role off the bench, averaging 6.5 points and 2.5 rebounds. UK earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and looked like national title favorites before a cold shooting night against West Virginia derailed those hopes.
Nonetheless, Kentucky’s once plummeting stock was suddenly soaring.
“From my freshman year to my sophomore year was opposites almost,” Miller said. “I’m blessed to be a part of that. I’m just happy that we changed that so fast. We went from an NIT to a chance at a championship in less than a year.”
Miller was an integral part of the change and he was expected to be a key leader the next season. He was, for the most part, as he earned SEC Tournament MVP honors and shot 44.3 percent from the 3-point line en route to the program’s 14th appearance in the Final Four. But Miller’s passivity and inconsistency was frustrating for coaches and fans alike to watch.
It came to a tipping point on Feb. 1, 2011 when Miller passed on not one but two shots in the closing seconds of a loss at Ole Miss. The criticism seemed to take a toll on the then-junior.
“When that was going, I didn’t really pay any attention to any outside sources,” Miller said. “Coach Cal has always preached to us to stay within the team, stay within in the family, as we say. I try my best to do that, so I never really paid any attention to that. I know my teammates and coaches have always showed me support. They’ve always been there for me through the good times and the bad times.”
Even this season, Miller has flowed in and out of games, as he’s averaged 9.9 points, down from last year’s 10.9. But when the game is on the line, Miller has been a different player this season. He’s turned into a closer.
“When you let him know (you want more), he responds,” Coach Cal said.
In crunch time, especially recently, Miller has been Kentucky’s go-to guy.
Leading Vanderbilt last game by one with 10 minutes to go, Miller scored nine points in the final quarter of the game after going scoreless for the first 30. In the previous game at Mississippi State, Miller sparked a come-from-behind, game-ending 22-4 run with nine late points. And in the game at Vanderbilt, he scored the game-clinching bucket when Marquis Teague fed him on the baseline for a layup with just over a minute to go.
On a team made up primarily of freshmen and sophomores, Miller has become the so-called “glue guy” that holds the team together, comes up with key plays and quite possibly provides the right amount of experience for a national title run.
“He does everything the team needs him to do,” Calipari said. “He completes everybody. He’s not competing, he’s completing. If he needs to rebound, defend (he will). He plays some guard, he plays some four. Whatever position we ask him, he just completes.”
It would have been easy for Miller to feel entitled and even bitter when Calipari decided to use him as his sixth man this season, but the senior guard never complained.
“It doesn’t mean a lot to me,” Miller said. “I have the same opportunities everybody else has. I feel like I’m playing the way I need to play. Coach Cal has supported me the whole time and so have my teammates. We’re all focused on one thing and that’s winning a national championship no matter what the roles are.”
Miller has achieved a lot at UK. During turbulent, successful and ever-changing times, he’s been the one constant, playing with 40 different Wildcats in 141 games over 3,491 total minutes.
If he can notch 42 more rebounds and five more blocks in his final games in a Kentucky uniform, he will join Tayshaun Prince and Chuck Hayes as the only players in program annals to record 1,000 points, 500 rebounds, 250 assists, 100 blocks and 100 steals during their careers. He’s the only Wildcat to have been a part of every single game in this 51-game home winning streak, and he has a chance to play in more games than any other Wildcat in program history (Wayne Turner holds the record with 151).
“(He) will be an NBA player, no doubt in my mind, and there’s no college player that’s played with more NBA players than him,” Calipari said.
Reaching the NBA has been a dream of Miller’s since he was a little boy in Maysville, but it won’t be the end-all if he doesn’t make it.
“I think I’ve grown up a lot in both aspects (on and off the court),” Miller said. “I feel like I’m a way better player than I was. I’m a way better person than I was. I’ve grown up a lot through the experiences I’ve had. I think that’s helped me to become a better player and a better person.”
For now, his focus is solely on putting the perfect ending on a storybook career at Kentucky. If Miller can help Kentucky capture its eighth national championship, he will become the first player in state history to win a Kentucky boys’ high school state championship, Mr. Basketball honors and an NCAA title at UK.
“I feel like we have a pretty good chance (to win a national title) this year,” Miller said. “We’re doing special things, and hopefully that can continue.”
Miller, along with fellow senior Eloy Vargas, will be honored before Thursday’s 9 p.m. game against Georgia during Senior Night festivities. The ceremony will include a video tribute, more than 23,000 fans singing “My Old Kentucky Home” and the presentation of a framed jersey. Miller doesn’t think he’ll cry, but nobody would have guessed Coach Cal would shed tears either the first time he met Miller and the Kentucky basketball team.
“I’ve been here for a while, had a lot of good memories and met a lot great people, great coaching staff, so I can imagine it will be emotional for me,” Miller said.
UK-Vanderbilt notes: Teague quietly bounces back