Darius Miller caught the ball on the
baseline, maybe 10 feet from the basket midway through the first
half of Kentucky's 77-58 win over Tennessee on Saturday and was
shocked by what he saw.
No defender running out at him. No hand in his face. No
double-team. Instead, the Volunteers barely paid any attention to
the Kentucky freshman.
Miller, shrugging his shoulders almost, calmly knocked down the
"There wasn't anything else I really could do," Miller said
with a laugh after pouring in a career-high 17 points.
He can afford to smile about it now after a rocky three months
in which the play of Kentucky's reigning Mr. Basketball failed to
match the hype.
Miller chose the Wildcats over Tennessee, Louisville and Florida
among others even though he knows how harsh the spotlight can be
for homegrown players at college basketball's all-time winningest
It's a challenge he willingly embraced, though one that
overwhelmed him early on.
He struggled to understand coach Billy Gillispie's offense,
looking lost at times on the floor. Even worse was his play at the
other end. Gillispie isn't exactly a big fan of throwing freshmen
into the mix, particularly ones that don't play defense. He
jokingly referred to Miller as "Arius" - as in, no 'D' - for
Miller found himself constantly wondering about his role as
Gillispie kept tinkering with the lineup. Miller would play 34
minutes on game, then barely get off the bench the next.
"It was a tough transition," Miller said.
One that he finally appears to be through thanks to a little
help from role model turned friend Chris Lofton. The former
Tennessee star - who like Miller was named Kentucky's Mr.
Basketball after a spectacular season at Mason County - has become
Miller's sounding board.
The two text often, even with Lofton playing professionally in
Turkey this year. Lofton returned home long enough, however, to
watch Miller make all six of his field goals - including three
3-pointers - as the Wildcats swept the season series from Tennessee
for the first time in four seasons.
"(Lofton) gives me a lot of advice," Miller said. "He talks
to me every now and then, trying to build my confidence and
everything. Giving me a little help, tips, stuff like that."
Whatever they're talking about, it appears to be working, and
just in time for Kentucky (19-8, 8-4 Southeastern Conference),
which heads to South Carolina (19-6, 8-4) on Wednesday hoping to
keep pace atop the crowded SEC East.
The Wildcats have been carried most of the year by stars Jodie
Meeks and Patrick Patterson. While Gillispie has brushed aside
chatter that Kentucky needs a viable third option when their big
guns are having off nights, even he admits now he expected Miller
to fill that role all along.
"He's been making strides," Gillispie said. "It's great for a
guy like him to have a bust-out game like that for what it can do
for him the remainder of the season."
Miller, however, isn't getting ahead of himself. There have been
a couple of games this season where he thought he'd finally broken
through only to stumble back to reality. He scored 12 points in the
season-opener against VMI, then turned it over five times in 13
minutes against North Carolina. He had seven points and five
assists in a gritty win over Mississippi State, then played just 11
minutes and did barely anything against Florida.
Even worse was the apparent lack of respect he's been given by
opponents. Teams have become so focused on stopping Meeks and
Patterson they've left the rest of the Wildcats largely unguarded,
all but daring them to take the shot.
It can get a little unnerving. Miller has found himself all
alone so often this year it's almost made him gunshy and shaken his
"It was kind of shocking at first," Miller said. "I don't
really know what to think about it when they was backing up that
far. It's not like they were just giving us a step. They were
playing all the way off of us."
And why not? Miller entered the Tennessee game shooting just 36
percent from the floor and 24 percent from 3-point range. Most of
those shots were wide-open looks with nobody around him.
All that space can mess with the head of a player used to
getting the kind of attention in high school that opponents now
reserve for Meeks and Patterson.
Rather than treat all that space like a burden and worrying
about messing up, Miller has decided it's time to just go out and
play. All six of his shots against the Volunteers were decisive, no
pausing or wringing of hands necessary.
It's the kind of play the Wildcats will need if they want to
make noise in the SEC tournament and beyond.
"Coach has been talking to us about being aggressive to start
helping out Pat and Jodie," Miller said. "They've been carrying
us the whole year and I think it's about time we come out and help