KNOXVILLE — The text-message conversation between Tennessee forward Dwight Miller and Pittsburgh guard Ashton Gibbs began pleasantly as usual.
It didn’t take long for some good-natured ribbing to ensue, though.
When the Volunteers host the 17th-ranked Panthers as part of the SEC/Big East Invitational this evening, Miller will be reunited with Gibbs and some of his other former Pitt teammates.
“We’re like brothers,” Miller said of his relationship with Gibbs. “I did text him the other day after they [played] La Salle. I told him to keep his head up.
“But when they come here, it’s going to be a loss. This is the type of stuff we do.”
Gibbs made just three of 15 shots in Pitt’s win against La Salle. It was the worst game of the season for the senior who leads the Panthers with 19 points per game. As former roommates, he and Miller built a relationship that they’ve continued though Miller has moved on.
UT’s 6-foot-8, 240-pound native of the Bahamas spent two seasons as a Panther. He redshirted in 2008-09 and played in 16 games in 2009-10, averaging just five minutes per game. Looking for more playing time, Miller decided to transfer.
“I had a conversation with Coach [Jamie] Dixon after the season, and basically we talked about playing time,” Miller said. “The minutes that were going to be allocated, I just ended up drawing the short end of the stick on that one. I just wanted to give myself the best opportunity to [play].
“I didn’t want to be that guy to just sit back and go for the ride. I wanted to play more of a hands-on approach to games instead of sitting on the bench. I decided to give myself a chance and try to make it work somewhere else.”
That somewhere else was Midland College in Texas, closer to St. Pius X High School in Houston, where Miller played. The Chaps won the 2011 junior college national title.
Though he had no scholarship offers from any high-major schools, the Vols landed Miller after first-year coach Cuonzo Martin replaced the fired Bruce Pearl.
In his first season at UT, Miller has battled freshman Yemi Makanjuola for minutes at the center position behind starter Kenny Hall. Miller had seven points and six rebounds in 15 minutes against Louisiana-Monroe and eight points and four rebounds in 18 minutes against Memphis. He’s played nine minutes or less in UT’s other four games.
“So far, I think things are working out well,” Miller said. “I still have a lot of things to learn, but I’m happy I made the decision.”
Miller said he’s approaching the game against his old team like any other, but much like the trip to the Maui Invitational two weeks ago, tonight presents a big opportunity for the Vols to get a win against a quality opponent.
“They have guys who have been around the block, been together for a long time and understand what it takes to compete on the road,” Martin said. “They’ll grind you out on both ends of the floor. They’ll take what they can get on the offensive side, but they’ll grind you and work that shot clock.”
Perhaps no Vol would enjoy a win more than Miller, though.
“Everybody knows that I went to Pitt,” he said. “It didn’t work out the way I wanted it to, but like I was telling some of my teammates earlier, you just want to approach this game like it’s just another team. Any team you play, you should already be to a point where you’re going to go as hard as you can for 40 minutes or more.
“You want to compete against those guys because you know them. You want to win the game just like any other game, but just being around old friends is going to make it that much better.”
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...