THE DATE: FEB. 1, 2011. THE PLACE: OXFORD, MISS. THE game: Kentucky at Ole Miss. On a critical possession in the final minute, with Kentucky clinging to a one-point lead, Darius Miller, a Wildcats junior forward, twice had the ball in his hands with a clean look at the basket. He passed. Both times.
The possession ended with a rushed, errant shot from Kentucky's DeAndre Liggins. Ole Miss guard Chris Warren buried the game-winning three 12 seconds later.
Fast-forward a year. Feb. 21, 2012. Kentucky at Mississippi State. The Wildcats faced a 13-point halftime deficit and trailed by seven points with eight minutes to play. Coach John Calipari, who had benched Miller early in the game after he passed up an open shot—"My coach never had to take me out because I didn't shoot," Calipari, who played point guard at Clarion in the early 1980s, cracked later—had just put Miller back into the game. Miller responded by drilling a three to cut the Bulldogs' lead to four. Less than two minutes later, with Kentucky down 60--53, Miller attempted another three and was fouled. He made all three free throws, then hit two more threes down the stretch to propel the Wildcats to a 73--64 win.
Miller's name didn't appear in many headlines the next morning, but that was nothing new. Throughout his career in Lexington, Miller has been overshadowed by flashier, younger teammates. But there was one prominent witness who offered righteous testimony to what the kid had just done. "Miller is the fiber that holds that team together," Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury said shortly after the game. "He has got one thing nobody else on the team has. He has got experience. ... All those other guys deserve what they get, but Miller is their most valuable player."
That sentiment is popular around the SEC. "He's a killer," Georgia coach Mark Fox said. "When it's the moment of truth, he makes so many critical plays." Florida coach Billy Donovan said earlier this year that he has "always loved" Miller. He added, "I just think he's a 'steady Eddie.' He's an incredible core guy that probably in a lot of ways is overshadowed. ... I always just see him doing whatever he has to do to help his team win."
During a period of great change at Kentucky, Miller has been the constant. Named Mr. Basketball while at Maysville's Mason County High in northeast Kentucky, Miller has had two coaches and 40 different teammates in Lexington. With the Wildcats' triumph this season, Miller became the first player from the Commonwealth to be named Mr. Basketball, win a high school state championship and go on to win an NCAA title for UK. It's quite a legacy for a guy who has had to be ordered to take big shots.
Miller, who was named the captain of SI's 13th annual All-Glue Team, is a genuine throwback—which is ironic considering he plays for the program that has been the embodiment of one-and-done recruiting. Miller is a senior (yes, a senior at Kentucky) who has improved steadily, from averaging 5.3 points per game as a freshman to 10.0 in 2011--12 heading into the Final Four. Versatile and tough, Miller possesses a classic blend of power and finesse. At 6' 8" and 225 pounds, he has the body of a power forward, yet he strokes threes as well as any two guard in America. He also has the requisite mentality to be a glue guy. Miller started 69 games over his sophomore and junior years but only 11 this year, and while many a senior would bristle at having to revert to a supplemental role in his final season, Miller has chosen to embrace it.
He admits that mind-set hasn't come easily. As Calipari adjusted his lineup multiple times this season, Miller adjusted too. He started UK's first game, came off the bench in the next nine, was reinserted into the starting lineup on Dec. 20 and then 10 games later was again put in a non-starting role. "I guess I was shocked," he says of that last decision, "but there's a great amount of talent on this team."
Instead of resenting his young teammates, Miller mentors them. Point guard Marquis Teague said Miller even checks to make sure the freshmen get up in the morning so they're not late for class. "He's taking care of us," Teague said.
Miller understands that starting a game is not nearly as important as finishing it. According to the Louisville Courier-Journal, during regular-season games in 2011--12 in which Kentucky entered the final 10 minutes leading by five points or fewer, Miller was on the floor for 82 out of 110 minutes. He shot 68% from the floor and made 13 of 14 free throws during those minutes.