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Call off the search party, UF's Miller says

The Gators' best player, prone to disappear at key times in games, declares he's here to stay.

By JOANNE KORTH

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 17, 2000


WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- Mike Miller can do magical things on a basketball court, but Florida hopes Miller leaves part of his repertoire at home for the NCAA Tournament.

The disappearing act.

photo
[AP photo]
Gator fans wonder if Mike Miller will return to greatness in the NCAA tournament.

Florida's most talented player, Miller is invincible in some games, invisible in others. For the Gators to reach their Final Four goal -- or even the second round of the tournament -- Miller must make an impact consistently.

"Miller is a great talent, but before we talk All-Rolls-Royce, he has to do it on a regular basis," ESPN analyst Dick Vitale said. "He has moments where he teases the hell out of you, and you say, "Oh my God, wow, this kid is sensational.' Then you watch minutes and minutes where he disappears. That can't happen in the NCAA Tournament."

Fifth-seeded Florida (24-7) plays No. 12 Butler (23-7) in the first round of the East Region at 2:45 p.m. today at Memorial Coliseum.

It's crunch time, and Miller knows it.

"I've heard a lot of criticism, "Why hasn't he stepped up?' " Miller said. "But we have a lot of good players who can step up at any time. ... Now that it's NCAA time with all these close games, if the opportunity is there, I'm definitely going to take it."

At 6 feet 8, Miller is an offensive weapon anywhere on the court. He can play any position. He can drive the lane for a fingertip roll and rip rebounds off the rim.

A sophomore, Miller is UF's leading scorer, averaging 14.3 points, and second-leading rebounder (6.4). He is third in assists (81), steals (39) and three-point goals (42).

"I think Mike Miller is the best basketball player in the Southeastern Conference," South Carolina coach Eddie Fogler said. "He is some player in terms of passing, catching, thinking, competing, making the extra pass -- nobody plays the game better than Miller."

But at times this season -- critical times -- Miller was a no-show. In UF's 81-79 double-overtime loss to Tennessee at home Jan. 18, Miller did not score in either overtime. He was a non-factor in the first half of losses at DePaul and Kentucky in which the Gators were unable to overcome large halftime deficits.

Miller accepted blame.

"After the Tennessee game at home when no one stepped up, that really helped me understand my role," Miller said. "I have to be the one to step it up when we need somebody. I have to run the offense and get people where they need to be and be a team leader."

Miller did just that in UF's next game, a 77-73 victory at Alabama. There were 13 ties and lead changes in the final 10:30, but the game turned on a Miller steal. Fouled on the ensuing fastbreak basket, Miller converted the three-point play to give UF the lead for good with 1:49 left.

The DePaul game was next.

"We've seen Mike Miller step up and play really, really good basketball games, and there's been games where you can't find him," coach Billy Donovan said. "I want Mike to step up, and I know he wants to step up."

Miller has been the focus of nearly every opponent's scouting report. Butler has his No. 13 high on its priority list. The Bulldogs, who will try to slow the pace of the game with their defense, likely will assign more than one player to Miller.

"Even if you don't know a whole lot about Florida, you've heard the name Mike Miller," Butler senior Andrew Graves said. "If it comes down to a close game, we'd like to keep the ball out of his hands. He makes very good decisions, and he can do a lot with the ball."

The NBA is interested in Miller's potential. He has deflected questions about turning professional after this season, and Donovan expects Miller to return to UF.

"He's a young kid, physically," Donovan said. "I don't even know if the guy shaves. Physically, he can have a hard time playing back-to-back games where he gets worn down.

"But Mike is great mentally. When he gets a lot of focus from the defense, he's a very unselfish kid who's going to try to distribute and make everybody else around him better. That's one thing I love about him."

In UF's 90-73 win against Kentucky at home, Miller had a modest 11 points but a career-high 18 rebounds. He dives for loose balls in the Gators' full-court press and creates mismatches with his ball-handling skills.

"His position is vital," UF guard Teddy Dupay said. "You have to be able to post and rebound from that spot as well as guard guards. A lot of our offensive sets run through that position, and you have to step up either by making the shot or making the pass."

Though Florida needs Miller to be aggressive in the tournament, Donovan does not want him to take bad shots in an effort to fit everyone else's definition of a go-to guy.

"Being aggressive doesn't always mean going out and scoring 25 a night," Donovan said. "Being aggressive means putting the ball on the floor and creating and making somebody else around you better. Mike Miller can rebound, he can defend, he can slash to the basket, get fouled and get to the free-throw line, he can do a lot of things to affect a basketball game."

Including disappear.

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