Utah Utes basketball: Andre Miller fondly remembers trip to '98 Final Four

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 13 2015 11:22 a.m. MDT

PHILADELPHIA — Andre Miller can still picture it all — even though it happened nearly 11 years ago.

The waves of Carolina and Kentucky blue, Stanford and Utah red that filled San Antonio's vast Alamodome. The frustrated images of Tar Heels Vince Carter and Antawn Jamison, looking helpless while the bigger, stronger Utes systematically pounded them into submission. The delirium in the locker room knowing the Utes, holding a 10-point halftime lead against nemesis Kentucky — which had already knocked them out of the tournament the two previous seasons — were just 20 minutes away from the national championship.

The fairy tale ended at that point, first-year coach Tubby Smith's Wildcats rallying to post a 78-69 win over Rick Majerus' gang. Over a decade later Miller, now the consummate professional point guard, the glue holding the Philadelphia 76ers together just as he did for those Utes, can transform his mind back in an instant.

"I can picture running out in that San Antonio Dome," said Miller, the No. 8 pick in the 1999 NBA Draft by Cleveland, who subsequently has played for the Clippers and Nuggets, before coming here as part of the 2006 Allen Iverson trade.

"Picture all the red. All the North Carolina fans. All the Kentucky fans. Nobody really knew who Utah was. We'd never been to that stage in previous years.

"How many players in the League (NBA) can say they made it to the Championship round? I'm grateful I had that opportunity to play in that big environment, the biggest stage at the highest level of college basketball.

"That was probably the smartest group of guys as far as my basketball career," Miller continued. "They understood basketball. Preparation. How to play basketball the right way. Pass to the open man. Move without the ball.

"All the small things that make a team go. We didn't have the greatest players. The most athletic players. But what we lacked in that we made up for in smarts."

Plus, they had a coach who left nothing to chance. If you were going to beat a Majerus team you'd better come prepared, because you knew his team would be.

"None of the games were easy," recalled Miller of the No. 3 seeded Utes run through the West, beginning with wins over San Francisco (85-68) and Arkansas (75-69), followed by a 65-62 squeaker over West Virginia, before shocking top-seeded Arizona, 76-51, in the Regional title game in Anaheim. "We were just well prepared and executed our game plan.

"It was instilled from the beginning of practice, to the end of practice all the way till the end of the season. Drills every day. Drills on cutting. Shooting. Screening. Moving without the ball.

"At the time when you're young you have a lot more energy, it really didn't wear on your body. It was tough, but that's what was expected at the college level.

"When we got to San Antonio we'd come in our rooms and there were pieces of paper taped on the wall. Just preparation from beginning to the end.

"He's a lot different from any coach I've ever had."

Chances are, of course, Majerus would make the same argument of many of his NBA brethren. He'd agree that Andre Miller, who turns 33 Thursday, is a breed apart from other point guards. In a league where flash and style often stand out above substance, Miller, who quietly led the NBA in assists in 2002, with the Cavs, is a throwback.

If only there were more like him.

"He's one of the best point guards in the league," said Knicks' coach Mike D'Antoni, appreciatively. "Just his awareness, his ability to set tempo and run the team. To get his team very good shots.

"The way he plays this game is on the ground. A lot of times players who do that are overlooked because usually the highlight on SportsCenter is people dunking and all that.

"But he doesn't make a lot of mistakes, knows the game and he's a winner."

Not to mention a guy who knows exactly what it takes to get the most of his teammates — and himself. " He's an unassuming kind of guy," said longtime former NBA coach Mike Fratello, better known now as a TV analyst. "Doesn't try to get too much of the spotlight. He doesn't say outrageous things.

"He just does his job and comes to work."

In fact Andre Miller hasn't missed a day of "work" since the 2002-03 season when he was a Clipper, a streak that now encompassing 512 consecutive games (through Sunday, so update), the NBA's longest active streak. And he's missed only three games his entire career.

"It means a lot to me, because I've put in a lot of hard work" said Miller, who'll become a free agent this summer for the second time in his career (in 2003 he chose Denver over the Jazz). "I've tried to do the right things to get my body prepared for the season.

"When I have a nagging injury (like his current strained calf that threatened the streak a few weeks ago) I know what to do and how to pace myself."

Just as Rick Majerus taught him over a decade ago. What he didn't learn then, though, he's picked up along the way, including a renewed appreciation of that near championship run with Michael Doleac, Hanno Mottola and the rest. "We always knew we could play with any team in the country," said Miller, who still keeps in touch with people there and has closely followed the Utes both in football and basketball.

"How we were prepared gave us an advantage.

"Kentucky just wore on you. We were winning at the half, but I think we just got tired.

"We were upset we lost the game. But we understood we'd made a big accomplishment for ourselves and the university.

"I think there's a level of gratification."

Next weekend some team will begin its quest for that same kind of gratification, which Miller says has yet to be topped in his NBA career. "The playoffs are OK, but nothing compared to college basketball," says the man who remarkably has never been named an all-star, despite all he's accomplished. "The energy and environment of the college atmosphere. "It's always getting better. All college players want to get that experience."

An experience that Andre Miller has surprisingly found out only gets better through the years.

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