Liggins, Miller take charge of young team



Darius Miller still thinks about the locker room atmosphere following UK’s Elite Eight loss to West Virginia. The pain. The silence. The finality.

He’s a summer removed from that feeling, but it’s still on his mind.

Now, as one of the designated leaders of the team — a role partly assigned and partly self-given — he has to try and convey that sense of what it’s like to lose, and how to avoid it, to the freshmen.

“I think we can help guide them on what it’s going to take and how it’s going to be,” Miller said.

Most of the freshmen are still relatively new to losing, and March seems off in the distant future. They haven’t experienced the sting of suddenly being severed from the NCAA brackets, and Miller is trying to make sure they don’t have to.

“You can’t really tell somebody what that was like,” Miller said of playing in the pressure-packed tournament. “You have to experience it.”

Along with Miller, junior DeAndre Liggins has become the anointed leader. Together, they are perceived as the two players expected to take the biggest leap, in both production and leadership.

And it makes sense. UK lost five players taken in the first round of the NBA Draft, as well as solid contributor Darnell Dodson. Out of the few returning players, Liggins and Miller saw the most playing time last year. And someone has to adopt the Patrick Patterson role.

“Sometimes guys come to me for advice,” Miller said. “It’s a little bit different, but it’s just as fun still.”

But here’s the ultimate crossroads moment: Miller and Liggins have to produce this year, and yet they haven’t had to be anything close to an alpha dog yet. Miller played 21 minutes and averaged six points last year. Liggins played 15 minutes and averaged less than four points per game.

But the two are the closest thing UK has to experienced, veteran leaders.

UK needs them to perform like they are.

“We need (Liggins) to be a catalyst, a guy who makes plays when they matter,” Calipari said. “So if you’re going to be a catalyst, our team has to know you show every game.”

In the first two exhibition games it looked like the two will be able to make the leap. They averaged a combined 32 points per game, although Calipari said he saw each display signs of inconsistency.

Calipari noted Miller stopped playing at times, which induced freshmen to follow his (bad) example and stop. And Liggins, who prides himself on in-your-jersey defense, didn’t have his customary intensity.

“If (Liggins) doesn’t have his energy, we have problems,” Calipari said.

As part of bringing the new players up to speed, Miller and Liggins are teaching the new Cats all about their new coach, including what he demands from his players and the intricacies of his dribble-drive motion offense. Miller said he’s more comfortable in his second year in the system, and he’s doing everything he can to reinforce what Calipari is telling the freshmen.

“I’m trying to step up and talk more to the younger players and get them to understand what Coach Cal wants,” Liggins said.

Miller and Liggins have been making a conscious effort to talk more, something both said was “new” to them.

“We are all good friends and like brothers, so I don’t think any of us should have a problem speaking to one another,” Miller said.

While both were praised by Calipari for leading by example, he said the transition to being more vocal on the court isn’t complete.

“It’s hard to say they’re more vocal, because neither one of them is vocal, but they’re more than they’ve ever been,” Calipari said. “So every once in a while you’ll hear them say something.”