ATLANTA – One and done.
It's the phrase that has been heard almost as often as "Go Big Blue" around Kentucky's program during John Calipari's three-year tenure. Calipari has made Kentucky an annual national title contender by signing some of the nation's top high school prospects each year, then watching them leave for the NBA after one season.
Yet this latest group of future lottery picks that highlight Kentucky's roster might not have a shot at the Final Four without the contributions of 6-foot-7 swingman Darius Miller, the only Wildcats senior averaging more than seven minutes per game.
He's playing with the sense of urgency that comes from knowing his next game could be his last. Miller will try to make sure his college career doesn't end Sunday when the top-seeded Wildcats (35-2) face third-seeded Baylor (30-7) in the South Regional final at the Georgia Dome.
"It means a lot to me," Miller said. "It's my last go-around. I'm just trying to do whatever I can to keep the team alive. I feel like everybody else is doing the same thing, too. We have a lot of guys on the team that have the option to go pro next year. I feel they feel the same way. They're not ready for it to be over."
Sure, many of the underclassmen on Kentucky's roster have a good idea this will be their last year in college. But only Miller knows for sure this is it.
Miller, a projected second-round draft pick, is the lone member of the team who played for former coach Billy Gillispie. In his freshman season, the Wildcats were competing for a spot in the NIT semifinals instead of the NCAA semifinals. You better believe Miller savors this opportunity.
"At this point, it's win or go home," Miller said. "We're having a lot of fun with this. I don't think any of us is ready to go home. We all feel like we've put in way too much work to give it up or lose at this point."
Miller has spent his entire career as the guy who operates effectively in the background while his more celebrated teammates take center stage. He never has been even a second-team All-SEC selection. It's perhaps only fitting that the individual honor he finally earned this season was the conference's Sixth Man of the Year award, after he moved from the starting lineup into a reserve role.
This is a guy so unselfish that he actually got benched during a regular-season victory over Mississippi State because he passed up an open shot. Yet he also knows when to take over. In that same game, Miller scored 12 points in the final eight minutes to help Kentucky come from behind.
His wealth of experience and his ability to guard multiple positions make Miller one of the most valuable reserves in the nation.
"We have six starters on this team," Kentucky coach John Calipari said.
Miller arguably is playing as well as anybody on his team. He has scored 19 points in each of his past two games, and he is shooting 65.2 percent (15-of-23) with six assists and only one turnover during the NCAA tournament.
His best stretch of the season has come after one of his toughest. Miller didn't score at all in Kentucky's first two SEC tournament games. That's when Kentucky freshman forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist showed his respect for Miller by volunteering to come off the bench in the SEC championship game to give his older teammate the chance to start a game.
"He was in a slump," Kidd-Gilchrist said. "I just wanted to help out. … He's a leader on the floor at all times. We need him. He means a lot."
Although Kentucky lost to Vanderbilt that day, Miller scored 16 points to end his slide. He has heated up even more since returning to a reserve role in the NCAA tournament.
Miller has set an example with his extraordinary ability to adjust on the fly. First he had to learn how to play for Calipari after spending his freshman season with Gillispie.
"They're two totally different coaches," Miller said. "The way we play and just everything about them, it was different – totally different. It was hard to adjust, but just as hard for anybody else. 'Coach Cal,' the way he coaches, it's not like anybody else. I had to make the same transition as anybody else."
Kentucky's plethora of early exits to the draft also forced Miller to learn how to play with a whole new set of teammates each year. Jodie Meeks and Patrick Patterson were Kentucky's stars in Miller's freshman season. Miller's sophomore season featured John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe along with Patterson. Brandon Knight ran the offense last season in his lone season at Kentucky. This season, Miller has blended with newcomers Kidd-Gilchrist, Teague and Anthony Davis.
Some players might find this revolving-door roster a bit of a challenge. Miller considers it a blessing.
"I've actually had a lot of fun with it," he said. "I've been blessed to have the opportunities I have. I've played with a lot of great players, friends I call my brothers to this day. I still keep in contact with them. Just having an opportunity to know so many people who can help me out, I've been blessed to learn from so many people. I've had a great time with it."
Miller isn't about to complain. As a home-state product, he feels privileged to have the opportunity to wear the Kentucky uniform. Although Miller is one of four Kentucky residents on the Wildcats' roster, he's the only one who gets regular playing time. Miller, a former Maysville Mason County High star, understands how much basketball matters to the commonwealth, particularly at this time of the year.
"It means a lot for them," Miller said. "There's not really a pro team or anything like that. They look forward to this time."
Apparently, so does Miller.
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- John Calipari