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February 29, 2012

Miller gets Senior Night sendoff against Georgia

There have been 40 of them all told, ranging from superstars to bit players. Some have stuck around a while, some seemed barely to pass through Lexington.

They came and went, and Darius Miller stayed put.

On Thursday, Miller will play his final home game for No. 1 Kentucky, a Senior Night celebration of stability. The man who's had 40 teammates in four seasons - surely some sort of record, though there's no NCAA documentation of it - will take center stage along with classmate Eloy Vargas.

"That's a lot of teammates," Miller said Wednesday. "Whole lot of teammates. I didn't even know it was that many."

To answer your next question: No, he can't name them all.

And how could he? Miller's played with teammates ranging from John Wall, an overall No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft, to Jarvis Walker, a junior college player who neer so much as suited up for a game.

Through it all, Miller has been a constant. He's played understudy to future NBA standouts and stepped into a leading role at crunch time for the current Wildcats (28-1, 14-0 Southeastern Conference), who host Georgia (13-15, 4-10) on Thursday.

Miller had what he describes as a "tough" freshman year playing for Billy Gillispie, but he was a quick study in John Calipari's dribble-drive offense, and he's accepted his role on three Calipari teams stocked with NBA talent.

"Well, he's a wonderful young man. There's no question about that," Calipari said. "I'm just really proud of the strides he's taken, as far as being assertive as a leader. It's hard. You tell someone to lead, it's hard."

Miller has always seemed most comfortable outside the spotlight. But he's gradually taken on additional responsibility. He caught fire late last season for a Kentucky team that rallied from a slow start to reach the Final Four.

And though he's come off the bench for most of his senior season, Miller has been a significant contributor - and a calming influence - for the top-ranked Cats. In UK's last two wins, against Mississippi State and Vanderbilt, Miller shot 7 for 7 from the floor in the final two minutes.

Performances like that have earned Miller mounds of respect from opposing coaches. Mississippi State's Rick Stansbury called him "the fiber that holds that whole team together."

"I really like him," Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. "I like how he plays, I like how he acts. I don't coach him so I'm not the authority on it but I admire him as a player. He makes big shots. He is a big shot maker and a really good player for them."

Florida coach Billy Donovan said he's "always loved" Miller as a player.

"I've got a tremendous amount of respect for him because of just what he's been through," Donovan said. "He started off with, I think, Billy Gillispie there as a young player, and then John came in, and then he's playing with Wall and Bledsoe and Cousins and all those guys. Then comes in last year a new crop of guys. I just think he's a steady Eddie."

Donovan cited the "intangibles" that come with Miller's seniority, and that's been typical of the praise the 6-foot-8 senior receives. Though he's never been Kentucky's most talented player, Miller is lauded as a glue guy, a blender who fits well with a variety of on-court pieces.

"I'm happy with that, especially to be on a team with this much talent," Miller said. "I have great teammates. For them to say that about me, I'm happy about it. I'm grateful to be talked about in that way. It's a great honor."

At times, Calipari has asked for more.

Miller averages 9.9 points and 2.7 rebounds per game, and at times, Calipari has urged him to be assertive. He's taken Miller out of games for passing on open shots. After some of Miller's best games, Calipari has wondered aloud to reporters why Miller can't be at his best more often.

"The way I coach and the way he plays, the only thing I had to get out of him was the eye of the tiger, a little bit of viciousness, an aggressive intensity, which has been a process," Calipari said. "That doesn't happen overnight."

But Miller has had time to grow. He's had nine teammates - Wall, Jodie Meeks, Patrick Patterson, Eric Bledsoe, DeMarcus Cousins, Daniel Orton, DeAndre Liggins, Enes Kanter and Brandon Knight - who jumped early to the NBA, but Miller's development has taken more time.

Still, Calipari said, Miller is "going to be in a position he'd like to be in." The UK coach said he has no doubt that Miller can play in the NBA.

"I've dreamed about that since I was a young boy, a little kid and I think I'll have the opportunity to," Miller said.

But that can wait. For now, Miller's focused on trying to close out his college career with an NCAA championship. First, though, there's the matter of wrapping up his Rupp Arena career on Thursday.

Seniors have become something of a rarity in the Calipari Era at Kentucky, which has been marked by roster turnover, and Miller smiled Wednesday when he was asked if his approaching Senior Night in a youth-oriented UK program makes him feel old.

"Older than them," Miller said, referring to his younger teammates. "It seems like everybody is pretty young around here nowadays. But it's a lot of fun, and most of them have been great. Sometimes I get jokes about how long I've been around here but no big deal."


Game Information

Georgia at Kentucky
Thursday, 9 p.m.
Rupp Arena
Lexington, Ky.

TV: ESPN
Radio: UK IMG Network
Series: UK leads 113-25
Last Meeting: Kentucky won 57-44 on Jan. 24 in Athens, Ga.

No. 1 Kentucky (28-1, 14-0 SEC)
Coach: John Calipari (495-151; 92-13 at Kentucky)
Georgia (13-15, 4-10 SEC)
Coach: Mark Fox (171-72; 48-34 at Georgia)
Pos. Name Yr. Ht./Wt. PPG RPG
G Marquis Teague Fr. 6-2/189 9.8 2.6
G Darius Miller Sr. 6-8/225 9.9 2.7
C Eloy Vargas Sr. 6-11/244 1.0 1.8
F Michael Kidd-Gilchrist Fr. 6-7/232 12.2 7.0
F Anthony Davis Fr. 6-10/220 14.3 9.8
Pos. Name Yr. Ht./Wt. PPG RPG
G Gerald Robinson Jr. Sr. 6-1/180 14.3 4.0
G Dustin Ware Sr. 5-11/172 8.0 2.3
G Kentavious Caldwell-Pope Fr. 6-5/200 13.9 5.1
F Donte' Williams So. 6-9/220 7.6 5.4
F Marcus Thornton So. 6-7/235 3.0 5.0

Key Storylines

Consistent Cats
To hear John Calipari tell it, one of the keys to Kentucky's one-loss season has been the consistency of his team's effort. The Wildcats are heavy favorites to beat Georgia, but UK hasn't struggled with motivation against lesser opponents. "We've probably had over 100-and-some practice days. Maybe one or two (bad ones), and it's hard for me to remember," Calipari said. "How many games did we just play flat this year? I don't really remember any."

Better Bulldogs
Georgia isn't considered much of an upset threat Thursday, but the Bulldogs have made strides since their earlier meeting with the Wildcats. Georgia is 3-3 in its last six games, and two of the wins have been upsets of Mississippi State and Florida. "They're way more confident," Calipari said. "They're shooting the ball extremely well. They're spacing the court and doing much more pick and roll. They're playing off of handoffs, which I've not seen them do before."



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