Quiet Miller sparking explosive Wildcats
The conversation has taken place so many times this season, even Darius Miller has lost count.
At some point during a practice or a game - or both - Kentucky coach John Calipari will approach his talented, if sometimes timid, sophomore and tell Miller to get on the floor and get after it.
The quiet Miller's reply is usually a simple nod, even if the result sometimes leaves his coach shaking his head.
Finally, however, Calipari's message appears to be getting through.
Miller scored a career-high 20 points and grabbed nine rebounds in Kentucky's 90-60 dismantling of Wake Forest in the NCAA tournament's second round in New Orleans on Saturday, making 7 of 9 shots in 27 energetic minutes as the Wildcats cruised into the round of 16 for the first time since 2005.
``Really I just tried to play aggressive like coach has been telling me,'' Miller said.
And telling him. And telling him.
On a team full of budding stars like freshmen John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, Miller has done his best to try and blend in.
He's done it so well at times it's almost like he's disappeared.
Calipari has started Miller in 30 of Kentucky's 36 games because Miller's lean 6-foot-7 frame makes him effective on defense while his improved outside shot can make opponents pay for focusing on backcourt mates Wall and Eric Bledsoe.
Trouble is, Miller doesn't shoot enough. It's a strange problem for a player named Kentucky's Mr. Basketball over current Tennessee star Scotty Hopson two years.
Miller played sporadically as a freshman under Billy Gillispie last season, trying like the rest of his teammates to find a way to fit into Gillispie's seemingly ever-changing system.
Miller was one of six players to survive Calipari's roster purge after he replaced Gillispie last spring, in part because Calipari felt Miller could thrive in the dribble-drive offense. A slasher during his days at Mason County High in northeastern Kentucky, Miller seemed like prototypical Calipari player.
``His ability to pass, shoot and drive the ball to the basket is perfect for this offense,'' Calipari said in the fall.
Miller spent the summer helping the United States' Under-19 team win a world championship, and Calipari hoped the confidence Miller gleaned while playing alongside some of the top young players on the planet would help him establish his own identity.
It hasn't exactly worked out that way, with Miller sometimes looking lost trying to figure out his role.
Is he a slasher? A shooter? A lockdown defender? A passer?
Calipari would like him to be all four preferably, but would settle for Miller consistently being something other than an enigma.
Sometimes Calipari gets it. Sometimes he doesn't. Miller scored 18 points in a win over Arkansas on Jan. 23. Three days later he was scoreless in 14 minutes as the Wildcats lost to South Carolina.
Calipari lost his patience trying to figure out which Miller will show up, benching him in early February in favor of sharpshooter Darnell Dodson.
Dodson, however, can't match Miller's defensive skills and Miller worked his way back into the starting lineup after providing nine points in 19 tough minutes during a win at Mississippi State on Feb. 16.
The past month, however has been more of the same. Miller scored 14 points in the regular season finale against Florida, the scored all of nine points during the entire Southeastern Conference tournament.
Calipari stuck with Miller this time, and Miller rewarded his coach by producing the kind of spectacular play against Wake Forest that he'd shown only flashes of during the year. He hit six of his first seven shots as the Wildcats took a 16-point halftime lead, then spent the second half playing defense and deferring to his teammates as Kentucky stamped itself as the tournament favorite following the exit by top-seeded Kansas.
Yet Miller isn't quite ready to start making plans for the Final Four just yet.
Kentucky faces Cornell on Thursday in the East Regional semifinal.
``At times we don't play the whole 40 minutes and stuff,'' Miller said. ``So we've still got a little bit of ways to go. But I think we still have a lot more potential that we can reach.''
Miller was talking about the Wildcats, though he might as well have been talking about himself.
And how close Kentucky gets to its eighth NCAA title could depend on Miller's ability to find the consistency that's eluded him all season.