The most important shot in Darius Miller’s
season so far might have been the one he didn’t take.
In a Feb. 1 game at Ole Miss, Miller, Kentucky’s junior forward, found himself wide open in front of the Wildcats’ bench. With Kentucky ahead by a point and the shot clock winding down, Miller needed to shoot, but he couldn’t bring himself to pull the trigger. Instead he passed to a surprised DeAndre Liggins
, who had to hurry a shot that missed the rim.
The shot clock violation returned possession to the Rebels, allowing Chris Warren
, who has no such reservations about putting the ball in the air, scored the game-winning basket.
After the game, Miller was described as appearing “scared,” or “not having the nerve to shoot.” He doesn’t disagree.
“I guess I kind of froze up, really,” Miller said. “That’s all I can say.”
An event like that can be a crossroads in a college player’s career, sending him down one of two paths. Miller could have let his game digress after that deer-in-the-headlights freeze up, but he chose the opposite approach, thanks to some, shall we say, counseling from Kentucky coach John Calipari
It took Miller a couple of games to get adjusted to his new mindset, that of a go-to scorer, and for good reason. He’d spent his first two-and-a-half seasons in Lexington deferring to others, either as a freshman in 2008-09, or as a caddy to Patrick Patterson
and mega-star freshmen John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins
This season, Calipari stressed over and over, through any means possible—remember his quote about using the media like a “wet rag” to convey his displeasure to his players—to Miller, Liggins and senior post Josh Harrellson
about how they, as upperclassmen, had to step forward.
It took that moment at Ole Miss to enlighten Miller and remind him that he’s a pretty good player in his own right.
In the last 13 games, Miller has played the best basketball of his collegiate career, averaging 15.4 points and 4.7 rebounds and shooting .500 (19-of-38) from three-point range. He’s hit some huge threes, too, such as the one that provided separation from Tennessee in a hard-fought road win in Knoxville in the regular-season finale.
Then came the SEC Tournament, which Kentucky won with three straight solid performances at the Georgia Dome. Miller was front and center, averaging 13.3 points, 5.6 rebounds, 2.3 assists and a block. When the All-Tournament team was announced after the ‘Cats has dispatched Florida in the final, it was Miller who was chosen most valuable player, not heralded freshmen Brandon Knight or Terrence Jones
The tournament underscored how important Millers is to this team. This season, when he’s scored 15 or more points, the Wildcats are 8-1. Over his career, they’re 13-1.
“We beat people by 15, 20 points when Darius plays like he does,” Harrellson said. “It’s tough to stop him. He can shoot, he can dribble, he can post up. He’s a tough matchup for anybody on the floor.”
If it sounds like Miller’s teammates have confidence in him, they do. But before the Ole Miss debacle, Miller might not have had confidence in himself.
“I kind of got focused after that, rededicated myself to what I needed to do and what my team needed me to be,” Miller said. “Since that point I’ve just tried to play aggressive on offense and defense and try to help the team any way I can.”
Proof of how far Miller has progressed came in the post-SEC championship game press conference. Calipari, who sometimes uses press conferences as a bully pulpit to coax better effort from his players, heaped praise on Miller.
“Darius at times has been up and down,” Calipari said. “We have seen sparks of just greatness and then we have seen like, ‘Oh, my gosh, is that the same guy?’ [But] I said all along, I think Darius Miller has the talent and ability and skill to be the best player in our league. This week obviously, he was. And I'm proud of him.”
Miller will have to be good if Kentucky is to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. As the No. 4 seed in the rugged East Regional, they’ll start out with Ivy League champion Princeton, but then are looking at a possible rematch with West Virginia, which knocked the ‘Cats out of the tournament a year ago, just one game shy of the Final Four. A potential matchup with overall No. 1 seed Ohio State awaits in the Sweet 16.
SEC ONE BID SHY OF A LOAD?
: Georgia’s inclusion in the NCAA field—and Alabama’s snub—were some of the hot topics the pundits seized upon after the bracket was announced on Sunday. This year, non-conference schedule strength and road record seemed to be sticking points for the NCAA selection committee. Alabama’s non-conference schedule strength was 294 and its road record 7-9. Georgia was 104 and 7-4.
Similarly, Colorado, which beat Texas and Kansas State three times among its six RPI Top 50 victories, was left out of the Dance, perhaps because of its NCSS (331) and road record (3-9).
Georgia was sent to the East Regional as a No. 10 seed, where it will square off against No. 7 Washington, which comes into the tournament with the momentum of having won the Pac-10 Tournament.
Alabama was relegated to the NIT, where at least it was given a No. 1 seed. The SEC’s number of five NCAA bids was one short of the number national bracketmeisters had predicted.
: Another topic of discussion among bracket critics was Florida’s No. 2 seed in the Southeast Regional. Of course, had the Gators won the SEC Tournament, we probably wouldn’t have heard many people say they were an overvalued two.
Regardless whether it deserved its seeding, Florida has a chance to do some damage. If the Gators, as expected, get past UC Santa Barbara in the first round, the winner of the UCLA (7)-Michigan State (10) game awaits. Win there, and the Sweet 16 might hold a rematch against BYU, which knocked Florida out of the first round a year ago.
As always, the key to the Gators’ success is offensive balance. And it would help if they didn’t get off to slow starts, the way they did in the SEC Tournament, when they fell behind Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Kentucky in the first half. In the first two games, Florida was able to overcome double-digit leads with hot shooting in the second half. Not so against Kentucky, which did a great job of closing out on guards Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker
COMMODORES GET NO FAVORS:
Somehow the selection committee always seems to match Vanderbilt against a rugged mid-major, leading to some celebrated first-round ousters (Sienna, Murray State). This season is no different, as the Commodores, the No. 5 seed in the Southwest, drew Richmond, an undervalued No. 12 seed if there ever was one. The Spiders, 27-7, have won their last seven, including the Atlantic 10 Tournament, and 11 of their last 12.
Richmond has at least one certain NBA draft pick, 6-10 senior Justin Harper
, who shots 47 percent from three-point range, and a Bob Cousy Award candidate in point guard Kevin Anderson
. The Spiders run the Princeton offense under coach Chris Mooney.
“They’re a very veteran, experienced, seasoned team that plays a very unique style and plays it very well,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings
said. “We anticipate a very, very difficult matchup.”
TENNESSEE AND TIME-WARNER ARENA:
Tennessee is returning to the scene of a game that might have led to a loss of confidence earlier this season. Coming off great non-conference victories over Villanova and Pittsburgh and a stunning homecourt loss to Oakland, the Vols were hoping to get back on track against a seemingly outmanned Charlotte team (that finished 10-20). The game was played in downtown Charlotte’s Time-Warner Arena.
Instead of shaking off the Oakland loss, Tennessee shot .349 from the field against Charlotte and lost, 49-48. That outcome seemed to send the Vols on a maddening run of inconsistency.
The Charlotte game wasn’t the first time Tennessee had shot poorly at Time-Warner. In 2008, the Vols, who entered the NCAA Tournament with the No. 1 RPI in the country, shot .339 and lost to Louisville in a Sweet 16 game.
We’ll see if the Vols can regroup this week. Seeded No. 8 in the NCAA West Regional, they play No. 8 Michigan. If Tennessee has an advantage, it’s on the boards. The Vols were third in the SEC in rebounding (38.0), the Wolverines ninth in the Big Ten (32.0). Tennessee was third in the SEC in rebound margin (+4.2) and second in offensive boards (13.9). Michigan was 10th in the Big Ten in rebound margin (-1.9) and 11th in offensive boards (8.2).
NICE CONSOLATION PRIZE:
Ole Miss and Alabama—especially Alabama—were disappointed not to advance to the NCAA Tournament, but their seasons live on in the NIT. That, Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy
says, is not such a bad thing.
“Anytime you get an opportunity to participate in the postseason, you embrace it and you try to play as long as they’ll allow you to play Kennedy said.
Kennedy has led the Rebels to the NIT in four of his five seasons in Oxford, and twice, they’ve advanced to Madison Square Garden for the final four. If Ole Miss gets that far this season, it will have earned it. The Rebels have to play at the University of California in a first-round game, and if they can win there, chances are good they’ll have to play No. 1 seed Colorado, which will still be working off some post-NCAA Tournament snub frustration.
Alabama, another team that thought it belonged in the Big Dance, also earned a No. 1 seed in the NIT, and as such gets to play host to Coastal Carolina in an opening-round game. The Crimson Tide would host the New Mexico-UTEP winner in the second round.
Alabama coach Anthony Grant
is well familiar with Coastal Carolina’s offensive and defensive philosophy; the Chanticleers are coached by former Auburn coach Cliff Ellis
, who Grant faced many times when he was an assistant to Billy Donovan