NEW ORLEANS — Losing his starting job hasn't kept Kentucky senior Darius Miller from providing the leadership that has kept the freshman-laden Wildcats on track for a national championship.
When the freshmen needed help finding their classes, Miller was there. When it was time to work out, Miller made sure everyone was on time. When he needed to sit for the good of the team, Miller took a willing role on the bench even though freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was hesitant to take Miller's starting role.
"He's a great senior and great leader. When we're not doing good in practice he huddles us up and tells everybody to pick it up. He's a great player," Kentucky guard Doron Lamb said. "For Darius, coming off the bench on a great team like this, he comes into games and steps it up and gives us energy off the bench. That's his personality. He's been doing it since the summertime really. He's never changed."
Miller had every reason to be upset after Kidd-Gilchrist replaced him in the lineup.
His reaction? Not a peep.
If Miller has an ego, it can't compete with his drive to win it all with the Wildcats. He just might pull the true Kentucky trifecta in the process — Mr. Basketball for the state, Kentucky high school champion and an NCAA title winner for the school he grew up loving in Maysville, Ky., about 65 miles away from Lexington.
Miller may or may not start in New Orleans when the Wildcats (36-2) play Louisville (30-9) on Saturday in the national semifinals. It hardly matters.
He's not a sixth man; he's Kentucky's sixth starter.
"He's our senior," freshman Marquis Teague said. "He knows what it takes."
Miller has always walked a delicate line. He was signed by Billy Gillispie, who was fired at the end of Miller's freshman season.
Coach John Calipari quickly weeded through the mishmash roster but liked Miller's ability to pick up the dribble drive offense, his unselfishness and his size. All the while, Miller had to deal with the spotlight of the school's rabid fan base that's starved for its first title since 1998.
"It was different for me. It took some adjustment living in I guess what you would say is fishbowl. ... Everybody sees what you're doing, pays attention to what you're doing," Miller said. "When we're around campus, people know who we are. We've got to watch what we do. We can't do anything silly."
Miller worked his way into a starting role — 69 times in 76 games over his sophomore and junior years as Kentucky went deeper each time in the NCAA tournament. Then Calipari hauled in his third straight No. 1 recruiting class, and Miller became the odd man out to Kidd-Gilchrist.
Kidd-Gilchrist felt bad for bumping his teammate, went to Calipari and offered to go to the bench to give Miller back his starting role. Miller didn't want that. He said he wanted what was best for the team, what gave them the best chance to win.
Kidd-Gilchrist stayed. Miller sat with only one spot start over nearly two months until the SEC tournament final. This time, when Kidd-Gilchrist again told Calipari to consider a switch, Miller was in the starting lineup. Kentucky lost to Vanderbilt, but it sparked Miller in time for the NCAA tournament.
"For him to be able to do something like that, that meant a lot to me," said Miller, who is averaging 14.2 points in the last five games. "Just the way he showed support to me and the way the coaches showed support by letting me start in the SEC tournament, that meant a lot for me and got me going."
This would seem to be Miller's moment with all of the young Wildcats relying on his experience.
But there's still a personal hole in his resume. He's never had a memorable performance against Louisville in four previous meetings.
The first two years he played the Cardinals, he didn't score a point. He's never reached double figures against them, and in Kentucky's 69-62 victory on Dec. 31 he managed more turnovers (a career-high eight) than points (seven).
"The rivalry is huge," Miller said. "It's been nice for me to grow up in the type of environment like that, being able to see it my whole life. There's been some great games."
Knowing so much, Miller has learned exactly what to tell his teammates about it — nothing at all.
"I don't even tell them, really. I don't try to feed into it or anything. That just puts more pressure on the team. That's something we don't need," Miller said. "If somebody asks me about it, I'll be like, 'Yes, it's a big rivalry for people in the state.' But they don't need to worry about that.
"They just need to worry about playing basketball."
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