Kentucky Basketball: Darius Miller Is the Biggest Key to Winning in March

Liz YoungbloodContributor IIIFebruary 22, 2012

Kentucky Basketball: Darius Miller Is the Biggest Key to Winning in March

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    The Kentucky Wildcats are 27-1, undefeated in the Southeastern Conference and ranked first in the nation. Their roster is loaded with future NBA prospects, any of which could come up with a big play to spark the Cats in March.

    But one player will have a much greater impact on Kentucky’s fortunes in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament than the rest—Darius Miller

    Despite being one of the least heralded Wildcat players, Miller is among its most talented. His name is often not brought up in NBA draft discussions simply because of his inconsistencies. 

    When Miller is on, however, he is tough to stop.

    Kentucky’s freshman-filled lineup has done quite well for itself so far this season, but undoubtedly when March rolls around, it will face some adversity. And that is when it will be Miller’s time to step up.

    Despite averaging just under 10 points, 2.7 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game, Miller is capable of taking over games and leading his team to a win. Nowhere will his skills be needed more in the NCAA Tournament. 

    Kentucky can survive games in which Miller does not play his best, but in order to survive March Madness, with every team playing their best basketball, he will need to step up.

Leadership

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    Darius Miller is one of the lone seniors on the Kentucky Wildcats’ roster.

    He has averaged more than 20 minutes per game in each of his four seasons.

    Most importantly, Miller has been to the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament twice, including reaching the Final Four last season.

    He is familiar with the style of play the team will face in March and can help prepare his teammates.

    Furthermore, Miller is used to the influx of freshman that coach John Calipari herds to Lexington each fall. He has learned how to integrate himself into the team and knows when to step up. 

    Miller was voted Mr. Basketball in the state of Kentucky his senior year of high school and led his team to a state championship. He has proven that he is capable of assuming a leadership role and winning it all. 

    Many bemoan Miller for not being a vocal enough leader on the court, but it seems that at this point in his career, that is simply not his style.

    Miller instead leads through example, locking down on defense and finding his shot on offense.

    When the NCAA tournament rolls around, Miller better be ready to step up and show his team what it takes to win a championship.

All-Around Game

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    A key to Darius Miller’s game is that he can do a little bit of everything.

    He can score by driving to the basket, shooting threes or sinking a mid-range jump shot. 

    Miller is strong and is not afraid of getting into the lane for rebounds.

    He averaged almost five rebounds per game in his junior season and is grabbing just shy of three per game this year (perhaps due to Anthony Davis’ ridiculous dominance in that area). 

    Even while playing the small forward or power forward position, Miller is a great passer.

    John Calipari’s offense has Miller playing on the perimeter, and he is very adept at taking a dribble or two into the lane and kicking the ball out to an open teammate. 

    He is averaging over two assists per game this season and has had four games with five or more dimes. 

    Lastly, Miller can play defense. He is often the team’s second-best defensive option after Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and can use his length and quickness to lock down on almost any player. 

    Miller’s versatility allows him to shape his game to fit what the team needs. If a teammate has a hot hand, Miller can find ways of getting him the ball.

    If Terrence Jones or Anthony Davis gets in foul trouble, Miller can pick up some of the slack on the boards. If the team needs a boost, Miller can look for his shot. 

    There are so many ways that Miller can contribute to his team that he should never have an off night. 

    Kentucky is going to face many different teams in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament with varying styles. Miller will be key because he can adapt to all of them.

Past Performance

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    Darius Miller has already shown that he can step up and lead his team.

    Take the Kentucky Wildcats’ most recent game against the Mississippi Rebels.

    Anthony Davis was in foul trouble, Kentucky’s lead had evaporated and the Cats looked helpless.

    Enter Miller. He started things off with a ridiculous dunk, then added two three-pointers during a 9-1 run that put Kentucky ahead for good.

    Last season, Miller took the Wildcats on his back during the SEC Tournament. He was named Most Valuable Player after averaging 13.3 points and 5.6 rebounds per game.

    As Miller has shown throughout his career, he is more than capable of being the Wildcats’ go-to man. For some reason, though, Miller cannot turn on that switch every night. 

    He has scored in double-digits 13 times this season, but that is not nearly enough.

    In Kentucky’s game against the Georgia Bulldogs, Miller demanded the ball from the start and took it strong to the basket every play. He finished the game with 19 points and shot 86 percent from the field and 100 percent from deep. 

    It is not that Miller has to score 20 a night for Kentucky to win games—it is just that he must remain assertive, as he has shown he can do many a time in his career. 

    When Miller is hungry, not many people can stop him.

Penetration

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    Despite all of the Kentucky Wildcats’ talent, the team still sometimes struggles against certain types of defenses—most notably a zone and sagging man-to-man.

    The team becomes complacent and elects to pass the ball around the perimeter instead of getting into the lane. 

    One of Darius Miller’s strengths is penetrating.

    Miller has played enough basketball under coach John Calipari that he has learned how to take advantage of what zone defenses give. 

    Miller is the master of a methodical drive in which he takes a few dribbles, hesitates, slides between defenders and suddenly finds himself right under the basket for an easy shot. He can see the gaps in zones and take advantage of them.

    Another one of Miller’s strengths is getting to the foul line. Against zones, the goal of the offense is to get the ball to the middle of the floor. Miller is great at taking a few dribbles and pulling up about 10 feet from the basket.

    From that position, Miller can shoot (it seems to be one of his favorite spots), kick the ball outside for an open three or throw an alley-oop to Anthony Davis or Terrence Jones.

    Miller’s most important role for this young Kentucky team should be to teach them how to penetrate or to simply take over games and do it himself.

    When the offense becomes stagnant, it will be on Miller to revive it with a few nice jump shots and drives to the basket.

Inconsistency

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    Yes, believe it or not, Darius Miller’s inconsistency is one of the reasons that he will be key for the Kentucky Wildcats in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. 

    Miller has given Kentucky fans their fair share of headaches in his four years with the Wildcats.

    He can score 17 points one night and four the next.

    There is no telling when Miller will be on and when he will fade into the background.

    But that might actually help him come tournament time.

    While Miller’s name will almost certainly come up on scouting reports (Kentucky often plays just seven players, so it would be hard for him to go unnoticed), he is often overshadowed by stars like Anthony Davis and Terrence Jones.

    So if opposing defenses are busy trying to prevent lobs to Davis or open threes for Doron Lamb, it will be easy for Miller to go to work.

    Because he probably won’t be receiving as much defensive attention, Miller will be free to penetrate, shoot and create opportunities for his teammates.

    Defenses will be that much much better in the tournament, so it will be harder for Kentucky’s stars to get going. If Miller can start scoring, it will force defenses to pay attention to him and can open up the floor for his teammates.

Shooting

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    Outside of Doron Lamb and Kyle Wiltjer (when he plays), the Kentucky Wildcats do not have very reliable outside shooting.

    Darius Miller is basically the Wildcats’ second-option from deep. And he is very capable of delivering.

    Last season, Miller shot 44 percent from three.

    This year, his percentage has dropped to a still-respectable 38 percent (thanks in large part to a cold spell to start the season).

    But make no mistake, Miller can shoot. If he is hitting from downtown, Kentucky is an incredibly dangerous team.

    In Kentucky’s game against the Georgia Bulldogs, Miller hit all four of his shots from deep. Against the Portland Pilots, he hit 4-of-6.

    Miller can be deadly if he finds his rhythm. If he is left open, Miller will connect.

    Another one of Miller’s strengths is his mid-range jump shot. At the moment, Kentucky is still searching for a good mid-range game, and Miller should be the answer.

    Against a zone, where the Wildcats struggle most, it might help the team to put Miller at the foul line.

    If he can get the ball there, Miller could square up and shoot, take the ball to the basket or find a big man underneath.

    Because he can dribble through defenders so well and make difficult shots, Miller would be a huge threat from that distance.

Takes Care of Ball

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    Darius Miller is asked to do a fair amount of ball-handling for the Kentucky Wildcats.

    Marquis Teague, the Cats’ point guard, is backed up by shooting guard Doron Lamb.

    That means that when Teague is not in the game, Miller is the team’s secondary ball-handler.

    Also, Kentucky’s dribble-drive offense necessitates that every player be able to handle the ball around the perimeter and drive to the basket when possible. 

    Fortunately for Kentucky, the ball is in good hands with Miller.

    He is turning the ball over less than twice per game and has had just five games with more than two turnovers this season.

    For a team led by so many freshman, ball control is always an issue for the Wildcats. It is very important that the team can count on its senior leader to protect the ball.

    It is true that Miller does not look completely comfortable bringing the ball up the court, but that is not something he will have to do often.

    Instead, it is encouraging that Miller is an accurate passer, because when teams press Kentucky, Miller is great at finding open players, even when double-teamed.