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Miller responds to Cal's challenge with more aggressive role

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MBSK 09_10 UK_Hartford Web 50.jpgFollowing one of his first sessions with the Kentucky basketball team, John Calipari, as he tells it, went back to his office and wondered what he had gotten himself into.

Without a star-studded recruiting class at that point in April, Calipari realized the talent pool was a bit dry.

One player, however, that appeared to stand out in those individual drill instruction sessions along with eventual NBA draftee Jodie Meeks was Darius Miller. With his length, athleticism and quickness, Miller appeared to be the perfect fit for Calipari's vaunted Dribble Drive Motion Offense.

Miller's ability to drive to the basket provided Calipari, now the king of Camelot, his Excalibur to slice through defenses and reestablish Kentucky's rightful place atop the ranks of college basketball.

A couple of things still ring true: One, Kentucky appears poised to take over the top spot in college basketball and Miller still possesses those same physical traits to take over a game in Calipari's run-and-gun system.

As Calipari said on multiple occasions, he's solid at everything and good enough at all aspects of the game to fit "in this system as well as anyone in the program."

However, halfway through the season, Miller finds himself searching for a role on a team full of superstars. On natural ability alone, Miller has started for the Cats in all 18 games this season, averaging 7.3 points and 2.7 rebounds per game, but Calipari issued a personal challenge to him after the Louisville game to be more aggressive.

"He's just got to play," Calipari said. "It's not deferring. He slows down in the game and has opportunities to dunk balls and he doesn't. Come on, man."

Since a season-high 16 points against Hartford, Miller has averaged just 4.3 points per game over his last four contests. Miller believes it has everything to do with his bad habit of deferring to his teammates.

With a roster stocked full of McDonald's All-Americans, Player of the Year candidates and future NBA stars, Miller has had a tendency to take a backseat to his teammates.

"It's tough at times, especially with the amount of talent we have on this team," Miller said. "We have (Patrick Patterson) who is an All-American, John (Wall), too, and DeMarcus (Cousins), who has been doing a really good job of scoring and dominating games. At times it is tough to kind of get out of that habit.

"I really didn't feel like I had to (score) really because when you've got people scoring 20 points a game with three different players, I really was just trying to do a little bit of everything else."

Calipari, who at one point in the season had to yell at Miller during the middle of a game to take an open shot, said deferment is not the problem. He believes it's aggressiveness.

"On the excuse board (deferment's) No. 6," Calipari said.

Although his scoring hasn't been there the last two games, it appears Miller has started to get the message after a season-low eight minutes vs. Louisville.

Against Florida in a hostile environment in Gainesville, Fla., Miller scored nine points, including a key dunk. The throw down was his first of the year, and judging by Calipari's reaction on the sideline, one would have thought the two-hand baseline jam was a between-the-legs, one-hand tomahawk slam.

"We were all doing back flips on the bench," Calipari said.

On Saturday vs. Auburn, Miller came up with back-to-back rejections, including a one-hand swat on Tiger guard DeWayne Reed, who tried to fly down the lane and posterize the Maysville, Ky., native and former Kentucky Mr. Basketball winner.

To his credit, Miller has handled Calipari's challenge in good spirits.

"I knew it was my fault," Miller said. "All I had to do was change. (Calipari) was straightforward. He told me what he wanted. If I didn't do it he wasn't going to play me."

Last week he answered reporters' questions with a smile on his face nearly the entire time and he's taken the ribbing from his teammates in stride.

"They've been joking with me about not having a dunk so far," Miller said. "I was probably one of the only guys not to."

The most important thing is that Miller has seemingly responded to Calipari's ultimatum to either play harder or sit on the bench.

He has always had the skills and potential. At 6-foot-7, he possesses length and speed, and he's become a surprisingly consistent threat from behind the 3-point line, hitting 27-of-65 long-range shots (41.5 percent) this season.

Now if he can combine that offensive potential with more aggressiveness and the "junkyard dog" defensive mentality that Calipari so often raves about Ramon Harris, Miller will have discovered the role Calipari has been asking of the sophomore guard.

"He wants a lot from everybody," Miller said. "Just everybody being aggressive and going out and playing comfortably. He really wants us to focus on defense and rebounding and making tough plays."

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