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It’s Rupp Arena’s Final Miller Time

March 2, 2012

I honestly haven’t been this sad about a UK senior night since 2005 when the program said goodbye to Chuck Hayes (and Josh Carrier and – although we didn’t know it at the time — Kelenna Azubuike); and with all due respect to Eloy Vargas, it has nothing to do with him. Don’t get me wrong, Eloy seems like a good guy. I’m impressed with his improvement since last year (which is obvious even despite limited minutes). I think it’s awesome that he’s Ryan Lemond’s son’s favorite player, and it’s incredibly cool that his name reminds me of a Jetsons character, but my senior night sadness is all about Darius Miller.

I don’t have a great explanation as to why, but over the course of the last four years he’s become maybe my second favorite Wildcat all-time (behind Kyle Macy, and not just because I share the Sunday Morning Sports Talk show with him. That spot was pretty much cemented forever when I was 10). It would be easy to say that I became a fan during last year’s run in the SEC and NCAA Tournaments when Miller and Josh Harrellson practically willed the Wildcats to a national title, but it goes back before that – maybe all the way back to his freshman year.

I’m not a recruiting guy. I honestly can’t make myself follow it, but I was excited when Miller decided to come to Kentucky. I have friends from Maysville and they were excited and said he could play, so I got excited too. Plus, like a lot of UK fans, I think I still had a Chris Lofton hangover. It was great to see a top Kentucky player recruited by and committed to the Wildcats.

And despite the many changes in the UK program since the Unforgettables set the Gold Standard for Kentucky natives’ (plus Shaun Woods) dedication to playing for the Blue and White, there is still something special about a Kentucky kid excelling as a Wildcat. And while you could look at Miller’s overall numbers and maybe argue that Miller “excelling” is a stretch, without his play there is no Final Four trip last year and there’s no 20-game winning streak headed into tonight’s game.

The other thing that has made Miller easy to love as Wildcat is the way he has gone about what is a much more interesting career than he will ever say. He fought his way through an erratic freshman year with a semi-stable coach who was in over his head. Miller never complained publicly once, nor has he really since. The most you’ll get out of him is agreement that things were tough and a little smile. He faced the uncertainty of a new coach, a new system and questions about whether he’d stay at Kentucky. He never said a word. He adapted to the new coach and new system and developed into a team-first player willing to do anything to help his team win. He also became a player that much more heralded players openly said they looked up to.

All of that brings us to tonight, when we say goodbye to Miller, at least at Rupp Arena. Hopefully we get to see him eight more times (Sunday at Florida, three SEC Tournament Games and six NCAA Tournament Games). And while I always want to see UK close its season by cutting down the nets on an April Monday, I can’t remember the last time I wanted to see an individual player get that opportunity – again it’s probably Chuck Hayes.

I’ve gotten the opportunity to be at one Kentucky Senior Night once in my entire life. It was the regular season finale to that debacle of Miller’s freshman year, and that night played right to form. The Cats blew a halftime lead (albeit just two points) and lost to this same Georgia team, sealing its fate as a non-NCAA Tournament team without a miracle we all knew wasn’t coming.

Now it seems like that night was far more than four years ago. Here’s hoping tonight ends much better for Miller and UK and that tonight’s Senior Night festivities are just the first of many amazing career-closing memories for one of Kentucky’s own who hung in there during the tough times.

And as soon as this game ends, I guess I’ll have to start studying up on Derek Willis.

Go Cats!

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