Just how Unforgettable has Darius Miller’s basketball career been at the University of Kentucky?
Miller played in his school record 152nd game Monday when the Wildcats beat Kansas to win the national championship, UK’s first since 1998. He finished his career with 1,248 points, 487 rebounds, 278 assists, 114 steals and 99 blocks. He played on teams that won 124 games and went 13-2 in NCAA Tournament play the last three years.
"He's the most unselfish player I've ever coached," said Kentucky coach John Calipari. "Sometimes it drives me crazy because I don't think he understands how good he really is, but he's done great things for us."
He was the only link between Kentucky’s very forgettable 2009 NIT team that led to the dismissal of coach Billy Gillispie and the arrival of John Calipari.
But how should he be remembered compared to in-state stars John Pelphrey, Deron Feldhaus and Richie Farmer? They stuck with Kentucky through the probation years created by then-coach Eddie Sutton and were part of that memorable game against Duke in the 1992 East Regional final. They were affectionately known as The Unforgettables and are still beloved by UKÃ?Â¿fans.
However, in four years they won 78 games. Ã?Â¿Pelphrey scored 1,257 points — nine more than Miller. Feldhaus scored 1,232 and Farmer 898. They never made a Final Four — Miller made two and won a national championship. Feldhaus had more rebounds (540) and Pelphrey had more more assists (327) and steals (173). Still, overall Miller’s stats are comparable or better than any of the beloved trio of in-state stars.
“I think he definitely should be remembered the same way,” actress Ashley Judd, a fan of the 1992 team, said. “He is special.”
Long-time college basketball writer Dick “Hoops” Weiss of the New York Daily News covered Kentucky’s 1991-92 season under coach Rick Ptino. He’s not ready to put Miller, a Mason County native, in the same beloved class at Pelphrey, Farmer and Feldhaus.
“The program was not on probation, everybody didn’t leave like they did on probation. He (Miller) stayed when Calipari came because he was already in the program. It’s not the same as those other kids. Two different issues,” Weiss said. “This was a team coming off the worst episode in Kentucky basketball history since the point-shaving scandal in the early 1950’s. Everyone left to go somewhere else. They stayed. Those kids were the end of the bench players.
“Darius Miller was actually a star and would have been a huge star on just about any other team until John started recruiting these one-and-dones. I think he is an incredibly loyal soldier and ultimate glue guy and I think he has become a senior statesman for a great team, but I am not sure it is the same thing. I think those guys get rewarded for their loyalty to the program and had nothing to do with their ability to play on the floor. They brought dignity back to the program. With Miller, the program had dignity back as soon as Billy Gillispie left.”
Weiss said because Miller is a “Kentucky kid and incredibly loyal to the state school” that there was no reason for him to leave because of Gillispie’s turmoil.
“Why leave? He was a great player. He probably thought he was going to play a larger role, bu he was a really big piece of their success in this tournament. He offered them the one thing they really needed — an additional shooter,” Weiss said.
“He is a draftable player. None of those other kids were draftable players. He will go probably mid-second round and IÃ?Â¿think he will make a roster. He is 6-6 and a great kid. He can make shots, he has become lot more steady on the floor with his entire game.Ã?Â¿I admire the fact that he has been able to live with the constant regeneration of new stars there and handle it about as well as you can handle anything.
“But I just think that was a different time in 1992. That’s why that team is so beloved. No one ever thought they would play a near-perfect game in the Elite Eight (against Duke). Miller is a part of one of the most effiicent teams in Kentucky basketball history. But IÃ?Â¿don’t think you can compare his talent to their talent or to those kids’ heart.”
Kentucky athletics director Mitch Barnhart has a different opinion from Weiss and more in line with Judd’s feelings.
“He may not like it when I call him this, but he has one of the greatest smiles in the world and I call him Smiley. I have seen him when he wasn’t smiling and there have been a few times he walked back to that locker room when he wasn’t so pleasant. But when that kid smiles, he lights up a room,” Barnhart said. “He’s a wonderful young man, and being from our state it is has to be extremely special to him.
“Fans will have to talk about how they remember him, but IÃ?Â¿am glad it ended well for him and he got to experience a lot of the good. Without him, there would not have been a lot of the good. There were pieces to the puzzle that this Kentucky kid made work for the last two teams that have been to the Finall Four and for the team two years ago that won the SEC championship with John Wall.
“Darius has been very special. He has been the glue that has held two or three teams together and he is just a good young man. It couldn’t happen to a nicer kid and I will always appreciate the smile. He is a great representative of our state
“I am sure there are guys who have played four years who have more wins in total, but not a whole lot. He is part of something special. He has had an amazing run and has a really bright future for himself doing something because he is a personable kid and he is a pleasure to have around.”
Miller played 21.2 minutes per game both his freshmen and sophomore years, but took 128 3-point shots as a sophomore compared to only 54 his first year. His attempts continued to climb, but what made him more impressive was the number of big shots he hit. He keyed the comeback win at Vanderbilt, had a monstrous dunk against Mississippi that changed that game and made numerous big shots in postseason play, including a late 3-pointer in the win over Louisville.
“Darius basically has started for me for two years. Darius was the Player of the Year, the MVP of the conference tournament last year, led us to a Final Four, and accepted coming off the bench,” Calipari said during the Final Four. “Now, he's had his best year by far. His numbers, he's a topÃ?Â¿50 player to ever put on a uniform at Kentucky. But he's accepted coming off the bench. There are times I started him this year, times he started in the second half because he was playing so well.
“People love him. All the calls I'm getting about him, people want him on their team for the simple fact he's got to be a great kid. We have six starters. Someone had to come off the bench. He said, ‘I'm good with it.’”
Weiss doesn’t dispute that Miller played a special role in UK’s title run, and has a different opinion from Calipari about the importance of having in-state players on the court.
“I think it is very important for this program to have Kentucky kids. This is where I part ways with John. I am a big believer in having Kentucky players, at least some, representing the Big Blue Nation because once they put on the uniform, it means so much more to them than it means to someone from another state who might be here a year,” Weiss said. “Fans will always remember the Scott Padgett-Cameron Mills team in 1998 that won it all and the fact those kids still remembered 1992 when they lost to Duke.
“You always remember kids from Kentucky. It’s hard to forget Feldhaus, Pelphrey and Farmer on that team and the fact that they were local kids. The state rallied behind those kids and it was a special time. You would hope that Kentucky kids don’t end up being dinosaurs on Kentucky rosters because I think it is so important to have these kids. It’s such an important part of the commonwealth. No matter what you do you need at least one or two Kentucky kids playing key roles at Kentucky and this year it happened to be Darius.”
For fans, many think this 38-2 season, perfect SEC regular-season record and No. 1 national ranking happened in large part because of Miller and his contributions on and off the court.
“Oh my gosh. He should be like the Unforgettable. I am excited to see him happy,” senior dance team member Lindsey Buehner said in New Orleans. “He has gone through so much and held his head high the whole time. If you watch him come out of the dressing room he slaps hands with the students. All the other guys are focused on the game, but none of them thank the students for being here like he does. He has just always been so all about UK and the support. He’s just great. There’s no one like him. How could you ever forget him?”