Pikeville played an exhibition game at Kentucky earlier this season, Bears' coach Kelly Wells got to relive a special memory involving UK junior Darius Miller.
Back in 2004, when he was leading Mason County to a Sweet 16 title in Rupp Arena, there was a key moment in one of their wins when Wells felt the momentum moving toward the opponent. He looked down his bench, saw the eighth-grader Miller and decided to take a chance on finding the spark he needed in that unlikely source. Miller responded with eight points to key a rally for the Royals.
Fast forward to the summer of 2009 with Miller now on the roster of the USA's under-19 team as it marched toward a gold medal. Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon was directing that squad and he recalls how Miller became a defensive playmaker, including making a key steal in a semifinal victory over Croatia.
The point here?
Miller is a guy you can count on to do whatever it takes to help his team win.
Now, with Patrick Patterson gone to the NBA, the junior from Maysville, Ky., will be asked to provide more leadership on a team once again dominated by freshmen. It is a role Miller is more than happy to accept.
"I don't have a problem with it," Miller said. "I have always been a leader on my team except for the last two years. I am comfortable with it. I think all of us need to step up and do our part because we have experienced it before."
One thing that will serve Miller well now is his solid character. Dixon got firsthand experience with that and found that quality even more impressive than Miller's athleticism.
"He's got good length and good size, quick jumper, good lateral quickness," Pitt coach Jamie Dixon told tomleachky.com last summer. "He led us in steals and in blocked shots. He is a very good player and a great kid. I want to talk about his playing but I keep going back to a great person he was (with us) and what a great teammate he was. Obviously, he comes from a great background and I just think he's just a very, very good person."
Fellow junior DeAndre Liggins is another quiet player who will be asked to step outside his personal comfort zone to be a more vocal presence on this Kentucky team. And Miller thinks Liggins will provide the help that is needed there.
"DeAndre was quiet at first," Miller said."He has always been able to play and play with a high intensity. I think a lot of people will be surprised with how big a role he has with the team. He has been playing extremely well and he has taken the leadership role. He has been talking to guys and if they need to be told something, he will tell you. In the past few years, he hasn't done that a lot, but now he has taken that part and the team needs him. At first, he was quiet and kept to himself a bit. Now he has opened up and been there on and off the court."
One thing this Kentucky team will have that last year's team did not is veteran players with experience in the NCAA Tournament. Having been through it for the first time last season, Miller understands the value of that kind of track record.
"You can't really tell somebody what it is like," Miller said. "You have to experience it. We are here to guide (the freshmen) and let them know how it is going to be."
Another thing Miller can tell them about it is the bitter sting of coming up short of your goals. Head coach John Calipari has said on more than one occasion that Kentucky was the best team in the country last March only to have a bad night against West Virginia in a game that would have put the Wildcats in the Final Four. Miller and the other veterans are living with that and perhaps using it to motivate them, too.
Miller said he and the other players on last year's team needed several days to even get to the point where they wanted to go outside their homes after the loss to West Virginia.
"(I think about it) a lot really," Miller said. "We thought we had the best team in the nation, so it is always hard when you lose. None of the veteran guys want to feel that way again and it was a pretty painful loss when we thought we could have done better, so we hope to do better this year."