Kentucky coach John Calipari is in a unique position. Because of his unparalleled success on the recruiting trail -- four straight top ranked recruiting classes, rendering Cal and staff a recruiting dynasty -- followed by a season-ending player exodus to professional basketball, Cal is forced to not only persuade the best high school players in the land to come to Lexington on a yearly basis, but he also must select his talent carefully, mindful of egos and the ever-present personal agendas of the nation's top high school cagers.
Team chemistry, never more-so than in the 2012 Wildcat squad, is vitally important when one's game day rotation is filled with Parade and McDonald All-Americas. Playing for one another, and not selfishly for oneself, was the key to Kentucky's national title, and is also the key to UK's sustained success.
Additionally, Calipari must pick players capable of thriving in his dribble drive motion offense, which demands a versatile skill-set, not a one trick pony performer: players must be able to handle the ball with confidence when driving, get into the lane, rebound, and make shots from all over the floor.
So when Cal and his recruiting crew (Orlando Antigua, Kenny Payne, and John Robic) are evaluating potential future 'Cats, they are looking for a very particular basketball talent, and a very particular player attitude. Fortunately for Cal and 'Cat fans, UK's recruiting contingent now have a prototype with which to gauge all recruits.
Calipari in the summer of 2009, not long after taking the Kentucky job, said this about Darius Miller's versatility (all emphasis mine):
"Darius is solid at everything. His ability to pass, shoot and drive the ball to the basket is perfect for this offense."
Late in the 2012 season, Cal once again sang the praises of one of the most unselfish and versatile players to ever don the blue and white:
"He does everything the team needs him to do. 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 (power forward). Whatever position we ask him, he just completes."
Again after Kentucky captured its eighth national title, due in large part to Miller's talent and team-first attitude, Cal had this to say about the senior from Maysville, Ky.:
"Darius basically has started for me for two years. Now (this year) he's had his best year by far. His numbers; he's a top-50 player to ever put on a uniform at Kentucky, but he's accepted coming off the bench. We have six starters, (so) someone had to come off the bench. He said, 'I'm good with it.'"
If Miller was more "Miller-centric," caring for his own numbers (and with an eye cast toward maximizing his NBA stock) instead of winning ball games, perhaps he would have been upset and maybe even a bit bitter at being asked to come off the bench. Instead, Miller cemented his legacy by accepting whatever role was tossed his way with but a single thought:
"It doesn't mean a lot to me," Miller said toward the end of the season about not starting. "I have the same opportunities everybody else has. I feel like I'm playing the way I need to play. We're all focused on one thing, and that's winning a national championship no matter what the roles are."
It was that attitude, along with these numbers, which illustrate how versatile (read: valuable) Miller was to John Calipari's first three Wildcat squads -- The 2008 Kentucky Mr. Basketball winner finished his career with:
- 152 games played -- 1st all-time in UK history.
- 1,248 points -- 34th all-time.
- 114 steals -- 27th all-time.
- 278 assists -- 22nd all-time.
- 487 rebounds -- just a tad outside the top-50 all-time.
- 99 blocks -- 18th all-time.
- 37.8-percent 3-point accuracy -- 20th all-time (this from a player who shot roughly 30-percent from distance his senior year in high school).
- 81.5-percent free throw percentage -- 17th all-time.
- The 2011 SEC Tournament Player of the Year award, and a 2012 Academic All-SEC nod.
For a young man so terribly lacking in confidence through his first two-and-a-half years as a 'Cat, a circumstance which came to an unfortunate but effective culmination in a 2011 UK loss at Ole Miss (after Miller passed on two wide-open shots in the final seconds), Miller's evolution was substantial. Showing serious growth and basketball maturity later in the 2011 season, Miller won the aforementioned SEC tourney MVP, and parlayed that performance into becoming Mr. Clutch for the 2012 Wildcats, as he came up big late in games, enabling UK to achieve an undefeated SEC regular season slate:
- Among other 2012 heroics, Miller sparked UK's 73-64 win at Mississippi State by scoring nine of UK's 22 points (to MSU's four points) over the final 6:51 of the game.
- At Vanderbilt, a close 69-63 Wildcat win, Miller assisted on Doron Lamb's trifecta, putting UK up 64-63 with 3:18 left, and later Miller nailed a driving layup with 1:13 remaining, giving the 'Cats breathing room at 68-63.
After a confidence-challenged Miller began his Kentucky career creating more questions than answers, the former Mason County star blossomed like a spring bloom into a player future Wildcats would be wise to emulate. After all, Miller's work ethic enabled him to become a scorer both inside and outside the arc; Miller's unselfishness was the bell cow his teammates needed to lead the 'Cats to national title glory; and Miller's offensive versatility made the team (as a whole) much harder to guard, and him a more potent scorer.
Miller's message, evidenced by both his words and actions was; a national championship supersede egos. But which player on the 2013 Wildcats roster will bring Miller's mantra to the hardwood, every day in practice and every time the team dons the blue and white to do battle?
If John Calipari has done his job, and I, nor any other person has reason to doubt he has, then someone, perhaps returnee Kyle Wiltjer or redshirt point guard Ryan Harrow (the first non-freshman point guard Cal has had since the 2007 season), will carry Miller's mantel as yet another youthful group of 'Cats claw to become the first back-to-back title winners since Florida.
Regardless of who steps up, though, Miller is to be thanked for setting the example of how Wildcats are expected to play. For Miller was not the most purely talented UK player to ever ply his trade in Lexington, but a more perfect 'Cat I cannot recall.
Thanks for reading and Go 'Cats!