ATLANTA — A college freshman nearly 2,400 miles from home, Terrence Jones looked down the University of Kentucky basketball roster, noticed Darius Miller was one of the Wildcats’ most experienced players and decided he needed to get to know him better.
“Darius had a car; he was from Kentucky. I went to him right away,” Jones, now a sophomore, said of his first days as a Wildcat last year.
“I asked him, ‘What do you do around here? Where do you go to eat?’ I didn’t have a car. I didn’t know anybody. I needed help.”
Everybody needs a little help. Even potential NBA lottery picks such as Jones, who’s averaging close to a double-double (14 points, nine rebounds) in NCAA tournament play heading into this afternoon’s South Regional final against Baylor at the Georgia Dome.
“We all look to Darius for experience; he’s been through all of this a few times,” said Jones, who’s from Portland, Ore. “Darius and I room together now. He’s like my big brother.”
The perception is that there are no big brothers in the Wildcats program these days, that UK coach John Calipari simply restocks his roster and reloads his weapons each spring with a new class of one-and-done prep All-Americans.
The perception is if you’re so much as a junior for Cal, you’re the basketball equivalent of Rudy, a human victory cigar wearing shorts and sneakers.
And despite being named the state of Kentucky’s Mr. Basketball after leading Mason County High School — also the alma mater of former Tennessee great Chris Lofton — now-senior Miller has had his humbling moments after Calipari replaced Billy Gillispie at the close of his freshman season.
This year, for instance, Cal started Miller in the opener but has brought him off the bench for 26 of the Wildcats’ remaining 36 games.
“I’ve always thought I was good enough to play here,” Miller said. “But because other guys were so talented, I kind of limited myself. I became laid back because I didn’t have to do too much.”
How laid back?
Ask Miller what the top-ranked Wildcats (35-2) do for fun and he’ll say, “We watch a lot of movies. We don’t go out much. We’ve probably seen about every movie there is, though. We don’t do much but hang out together, go to school and play basketball.”
His most recent movie choice, according to Cal, was “21 Jump Street,” which the Cats watched Thursday evening before Friday night’s Sweet 16 win over Indiana.
Said Cal of the film: “It was awful if you’re 53. Stupidest things I’ve ever seen. If you’re 19, 20, 21, maybe not. There were a lot of people laughing. I guess I was the only one not laughing.”
Countered Miller: “I did think it was funny. But Coach got it wrong about me picking it. I didn’t pick it. I’d already seen it.”
Kentucky fans hope they haven’t seen today’s regional final before. Just like Miller’s sophomore season, UK entered the tournament as no worse than one of two favorites — the other being Kansas — to win it all. Just like then, the Wildcats have five potential first-round draft picks in starters Anthony Davis (projected first overall), Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (4), Jones (18), Doron Lamb (25) and Marquis Teague (30).
Also just like then — when West Virginia stunned UK in the East Regional final — a long, athletic team expected to run a confusing zone defense awaits in Baylor.
But unlike then, when Miller was arguably too laid back, he seems to be leading the charge through this tournament, having scored 19 points in the Cats’ last two NCAA tourney games while hitting five of his last eight 3-point tries and all seven of his free throws.
“Darius has been our leader from day one,” Teague said. “He’s what every team wants, a senior leader.”
They want him so much that when Miller was struggling off the bench heading into the SEC tourney final against Vanderbilt, Kidd-Gilchrist convinced Calipari to return the senior to the starting lineup to rebuild his confidence.
Though UK lost, Miller had 16 points and hasn’t hit less than 50 percent from the floor in any NCAA tourney game. He’s averaging 10 points a game for the season.
“There’s no question that that game gave me confidence,” Miller said of the Vandy start. “That meant a lot to me.”
But best to let Calipari explain what his lone productive senior means to his best team.
“Darius doesn’t compete,” he said. “He completes.”
Heading into today, he’s completing the best team in college basketball.
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...