New Orleans — It wasn’t hard for senior Darius Miller to answer — or laugh — when he ever envisioned having the national championship net around his neck when he was a freshman at Kentucky.
“No, not my freshman year,” he said Monday after UK beat Kansas 67-59 to win Kentucky’s first national title since 1998 and eighth overall.
Miller had five points, six rebounds and two blocked shots in the game. He finished his career with 1,248 points — 34th on UK’s all-time scoring list. He finished 10th in 3-point field goals with 175 and broke the school record for career games played with 152. He also leaves UK with 489 rebounds, 278 assists, 114 steals and 100 blocked shots. On top of that, he averaged 11.7 points per game — above his career average of 8.2 per game — in 15 NCAA Tournament games.
Yet during his freshman season when Kentucky didn’t make the NCAA under Billy Gillispie and finished with a 22-14 mark and NIT appearance, there was no reason for Miller to be this optimistic. Even when Gillispie was fired and John Calipari hired, Miller wasn’t sure what the future might hold.
“It's totally different. My freshman year, I was in the NIT. All y'all know that. For it to change so fast, it's amazing. I'm blessed to be a part of something like this, especially with these guys,” a smiling Miller said.
Miller couldn’t express what being on a national championship team meant.
“I can't really explain it or put it into words. All the hard work that we put in this year, the sacrifices that people have made on this team means a lot, especially with these guys. We've grown as brothers. We've had a lot of fun with this. I can't really put into words how it feels,” Miller said.
The victory makes him the first UK?player ever to win Kentucky Mr. Basketball, a state high school title and a national title. Louisville All-American Darrell Griffith did the same thing and is the only other Kentuckian to do it.
“I know it means a lot to them. They're huge UK fans. That's even before I got there. I know it means a lot for them, as well as the rest of the people in the state. It's a big accomplishment for all of us here. We're proud to be a part of something like this,” Miller said.
Kentucky’s run to the national championship faced four major non-conference tests. The Wildcats beat Kansas 75-65 in the State Farm Champions Classic in New York on Nov. 15 in their second game of the season thanks to a second-half blitz that had all five starters score in double figures. Next came a classic 1-2 matchup with North Carolina in Rupp Arena Dec. 3 that UK won 73-72 thanks to an incredible block by Anthony Davis of John Henson’s potential game-winning shot.
That set the stage for the Dec. 10 game in Bloomington, Ind. Davis got in early foul trouble, Teague struggled in the first half and Jones was so poor — four points, one rebound — that Calipari benched him at the end of game. Lamb missed a key free throw late and Indiana won on a 3-point shot by Christian Watford after UK failed to foul as Calipari wanted since the team had a foul to give.
The New Year’s Eve game with Louisville in Rupp Arena took Kidd-Gilchrist’s best overall game of the year — 24 points, 19 rebounds — for UK?to survive 69-62. About three months later, UK beat Louisville 69-61 in New Orleans to make the Final Four.
Conference play did one major thing early for Kentucky — it made the Cats become more physical. Kentucky had to come from behind to win 65-62 at Tennessee and then hit a different gear after a hard takedown from behind of Davis at LSU inspired the Cats to win 74-50. Kentucky followed that game with a 25-point win over Tennessee, 34-point win over South Carolina and 20-point victory over Florida in its most dominating stretch of the season.
The Cats got a major challenge at Vanderbilt before winning 69-63 on Feb. 11 and 10 days later trailed 41-28 at Mississippi State before a 45-23 second half blitz gave Kentucky a a 73-64 victory that again featured five players in double figures — a familiar theme for a team that depended on balanced scoring and the nation’s top field goal percentage defense all season.
Kentucky closed the regular season with a 74-59 win at Florida and then was so-so in SEC tourney wins over LSU and Florida before a late scoring drought led to a 71-64 loss to Vanderbilt.
However, the Cats hit another gear in NCAA Tournament play. Kentucky dominated Western Kentucky 81-65 and rolled over Iowa State 87-71. The rematch with Indiana was an offensive shootout the Cats won 102-90 before UK hit Baylor with a first-half knockout to win 82-70. The set the stage for the Battle of the Bluegrass in New Orleans against Louisville that UK won and then the rematch with Kansas that gave UK?the national title.
Davis was a consensus choice as national player of the year after leading the nation in blocked shots and Calipari marveled at his team’s offensive efficiency.
“All year our goal was to win the championship,” Miller said. “We had fun all year and I think we are all just honored to be part of something like this. We thought we could do, but saying it is a lot easier than doing it. We loved winning this for coach Cal and everybody in Kentucky.”