Hornets rookies Davis, Miller recall NCAA championship
“Right now, we’ve got a lot on our plates, a lot going on. But we definitely look back on it sometimes. That was one of the best moments of our lives, and not many people get to experience it.” DARIUS MILLER, Hornets rookie who played on Kentucky’s 2012 NCAA championship team
NEW ORLEANS — It doesn’t seem that long ago, Anthony Davis and Darius Miller said.
It was a year ago when Davis, then a freshman, and Miller, a senior, helped the Kentucky Wildcats win the 2012 NCAA men’s basketball championship in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Now, the two are rookies with the New Orleans Hornets, and the subject finds its way into their conversations. Then there’s the fact that it happened at the Superdome, right across from New Orleans Arena, where the Hornets play. That serves as a constant reminder.
“Right now, we’ve got a lot on our plates, a lot going on, but we definitely look back on it sometimes,” Miller said. “That was one of the best moments of our lives, and not many people get to experience it.”
Said Davis: “It’s a special thing, a bond we will share with all of our teammates and coaches forever.”
And it was a special accomplishment, even for basketball-tradition rich Kentucky. On April 2, 2012, No. 1-ranked and top-seeded Kentucky beat sixth-ranked Kansas, a No. 2 seed, 67-59 to win the school’s eighth championship. However, it was the Wildcats’ first since 1998, their first time reaching the Final Four in 13 years.
“After the game, in the locker room, coach (John) Calipari was really excited,” Miller said. “I’ll never forget that, because I felt he was really proud of us. It was just a great feeling for all of us, and I felt he was happy to share with us.”
It also was the first national title for Calipari, who’d led Memphis to the championship game in 2008, when they Tigers lost to Kansas on a late shot by Mario Chalmers.
“I’d never won a championship before, not in high school,” Davis said. “So it made me feel good that me and coach Calipari won our first championship together.”
The title-game victory also gave the Wildcats a 38-2 record, the wins setting an NCAA record. Five schools had tied for the previous record of 37.
That wasn’t the only reason it was a special team. Even for an NCAA champion, the Wildcats were very talented. That was evident in the NBA draft when six were chosen.
Davis went first overall to the Hornets, followed by small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist at No. 2 to the Charlotte Bobcats. Then power forward Terrence Jones went 18th to the Houston Rockets, and point guard Marquis Teague at No. 29 to the Chicago Bulls. Shooting guard Doron Lamb was chosen in the second round, 42nd overall, by the Milwaukee Bucks, and Miller was picked at No. 48.
That there were so many of them drafted, Davis said, it has helped them get through their rookie seasons.
“We talk all the time, and we’re constantly texting each other, checking up on each other,” he said. “No matter what your situation, your rookie year is a hard adjustment, and it’s been tougher on some.
“Mike Kidd-Gilchrist, that’s my boy. When I’m struggling, he hits me up. And when he’s struggling, I reach out. We just make sure we stay on top of each other. That way, we make each other better players.”
And it was a young team. Davis, Kidd-Gilchrist and Teague were freshmen and Jones and Lamb sophomores.
There were two seniors, one junior, three sophomores and four freshmen on the roster, not including those redshirting and out with season-long injuries.
Miller, who had played on previous Kentucky teams, said the team’s work ethic sticks out in his mind. To Davis, it was the cohesion, on and off the court.
To Calipari, it was the focus and unselfishness.
“We did not have one bad practice,” Calipari said. “They were great teammates. Think about it. Your best player, Anthony Davis, takes the fifth-most shots. And your second-best player, Michael Kidd, takes the fourth-most shots. And they’re the No. 1 and 2 picks in the draft.”
He said the efficiency of that team’s practices and what they brought to the table as far as working together and picking things up afforded him time at the end of the practices to go over game situations, which was a big help, particularly for a young team.
He never had to work on effort, intensity, emotion or on-court communication with the 2011-12 team, he said.
Davis said the teammates hit it off as soon as they hit campus in the summer, eating together, going to the movies. When you saw one, you saw others. That translated onto the court, he said.
The Wildcats, who started the season ranked second in the nation, won their first 10 games and became ranked No. 1 after beating No. 12 Kansas and No. 5 North Carolina. Then they lost at Indiana on Dec. 10 and dropped to No. 3.
Kentucky won its next 24 games. It defeated rival Louisville, ranked fourth, on New Year’s Eve to go to 13-1 and went to No. 1 in the nation after a stifling defensive showing in beating Georgia on Jan. 24. They were the top-ranked team the rest of the season, even after being stunned by Vanderbilt in the SEC Tournament championship game at New Orleans Arena.
They marched through the NCAAs, beating No. 16 seed Western Kentucky and eighth-seeded Iowa. Then the Wildcats won their rematch against Indiana, a fourth seed. They beat third-seeded Baylor to go the Final Four at the Dome.
There Kentucky again beat Louisville, seeded fourth, then turned back second-seeded Kansas, ranked sixth in the nation, for the title.
The key was Teague.
“He wasn’t having a bad season, but he became a better floor general,” Miller said. “He made huge plays, especially in the championship game.”
Calipari said: “When the light went on with Marquis Teague, we went to another level. That’s when we became that team.”
They’re still a team a year later.
“We had each other’s backs from the beginning and still do,” Davis said.
“We’re a great family. Family forever.”