KNOXVILLE – Be ready when your time comes.
That’s a cliché ripped straight from the college basketball coaching manual, advice usually aimed at a deep reserve whose minutes have been sporadic, or worse, sparse.
Tennessee junior forward Dwight Miller had heard those words all too often this season, to the point where he had become immune to their meaning. Then one day Vol coach Cuonzo Martin found a different way to say pretty much the same thing.
“Coach made a comment that it was tough not to play me,” Miller said. “The thing was, I just wasn’t getting it done. When he said that, I took the time to get into the gym and try and become a better basketball player, because I want to be out there for my teammates.”
On Wednesday night against Ole Miss, Miller got his chance. And for a player dying to contribute something, anything, to the cause, he turned out to be a hero in a key victory that kept Tennessee’s hopes of earning a bye in next month’s Southeastern Conference tournament alive.
After falling behind 15-2 to the Rebels, the Vols had to get some points from someone or risk getting blown out of their own gym. That someone turned out to be Miller.
With 11:26 to play in the first half and Tennessee trailing 15-4, Miller rebounded a missed shot, missed a layup, grabbed the rebound again and scored. Less than two minutes later his mid-range jump shot found the bottom of the net and Tennessee trailed 15-10. A minute and 20 seconds later, Miller drained a 3-pointer and the Vols trailed 15-13.
Where did this guy come from?
Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy wondered the same thing. The stat sheet showed that Miller had played all of 12 minutes and scored two points in the Vols’ SEC games, or at least the ones where he got to take his warm-ups off. Miller had logged eight of the dreaded DNP in league play.
Suffice it to say Miller wasn’t the focal point of Kennedy’s scouting report.
“He wasn’t one of the first two or three names we had talked about,” Kennedy said. “But every team has one and he stepped up. Tonight, are you kidding me? I thought he settled them in and made some big shots. When they went on that 9-1 or 9-2 spurt (to trim Ole Miss’ lead), he was right in the middle of that.”
Perhaps someone would have sparked the Vols’ comeback, but on this night, it was Miller’s turn. And the lift he provided – 10 points, seven rebounds, including five on the offensive glass, and a blocked shot in 16 minutes – helped lead to a 73-60 win.
If Kennedy and his staff had dug a little deeper, they might, might, have seen something to alert them that Miller was capable of that kind of production. In the Vols’ second game of the season, against ULM, he provided seven points and six boards in 15 minutes. Against Memphis in the Maui Invitational, he went for eight points and four rebounds in 18 minutes. In a loss at College of Charleston, he piled up 13 points and seven rebounds in the first half.
Oddly, it was after that outburst that Miller began to slowly sink to the nether regions of the bench – six minutes against UNC Asheville, three against East Tennessee State, four against The Citadel. And then came the DNPs. In the 15 games before Wednesday night, Miller didn’t play in 10 of them.
“Honestly, (that stretch of not playing) was one of the tougher things I’ve had to go through in my life,” Miller said. “You play the game because you love it, and you don’t want to sit out. Especially when your team loses. You don’t want to sit there and think to yourself, was there something I could do to help us win?”
There were reasons Miller couldn’t get off the bench. Once freshman Jarnell Stokes arrived early last month from Memphis, he gobbled up minutes that could have gone to Miller. Fellow bench denizen Renaldo Woolridge claimed a bit of PT here and there, as did freshman Yemi Makanjuola. And starter Jeronne Maymone, who has become one of the best players in the SEC, didn’t need a lot of rest.
But the biggest reason for Miller’s inability to get into the rotation?
“It was a case of him needing to continue to work to get better,” Martin said.
In Martin speak, that probably means Miller had to get better defensively.
“A lot of times you have to listen to subtle hints,” Miller said. “When you’re not playing, you’ve got to take a look at yourself, to examine yourself.”
Miller has some skills. He’s a good face-up shooter, a solid offensive rebounder and he can block shots. Despite his limited minutes, he’s led the Vols in blocks three times this season. But blocks aren’t necessarily a reliable indicator of good defensive play.
Once Miller proved to Martin he could defend, and after the suspension of former starting forward Kenny Hall, Miller got his chance.
“One thing I told Dwight is just stick with it and continue to work,” Martin said. “This (game) is just a result of being consistent and not giving up. I’m happy to see this for him.”
The media was happy to see it, too. Miller was the last of five Tennessee players to leave the postgame interview room. The native of the Bahamas is well spoken, a good quote who clearly spends a lot of time thinking about basketball. He even writes a blog on Tennessee’s athletics department Web site.
“This was rewarding tonight,” Miller said. “But it’ll be more rewarding if I could stay consistent and continue to get minutes. One of the goals I have on my wall is I want to start in a Division I college basketball game at some point.
“That’s something I always wake up in the morning and try to work toward. That would make me very happy.”