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March 31, 2011HOUSTON -- Darius Miller's team is just two wins from a national title, and in reaching the Final Four, Miller is close to the pinnacle of college basketball.
Still, he hasn't done anything Butler's Shelvin Mack hasn't done, and Mack, the Lexington native, never misses a chance to remind his good friend Miller that this weekend will be his second Final Four.
Mack, the Bulldogs' guard from Bryan Station High School, and Miller, the UK junior from Mason County, have been close since being eighth-grade AAU teammates. Mack said on Tuesday that Miller is "one of my best friends."
They talk and text all the time, and they play summer pickup games at UK's Joe Craft Center when Mack returns to Lexington. Miller even visited Mack to play the "NBA2K" video game on Wednesday night. (Miller said his Lakers beat Mack's Heat.)
Of course, Mack's Butler team made a Cinderella run to the 2010 national title game, two rounds better than Miller's Wildcats, and he has the upper hand there. As friends do, he's let Miller hear about the Bulldogs' success.
"I told him, 'Welcome to the Final Four,'" Mack said with a laugh on Thursday's media session at Reliant Stadium. "I gave him a little grief about that since I had the opportunity to be here last year."
Mack has been a star for Butler in its second consecutive unexpected Final Four run, averaging a team-high 17.7 points per game in the tournament.
Miller (9.9 ppg in the tournament) has been solid for the Cats, who are back in the Final Four for the first time since 1998.
The friends, who met playing on the D-1 Greyhounds AAU team in Cincinnati, are happy they can share the experience of playing on college basketball's biggest stage.
"It's been great to experience something like this with him," Miller said. "We talk a lot. I've grown up with him. ... We've been playing ball a lot together. It's just good to have a great friend like that. I had to hear to him a lot from him when they made it farther than we did, so it's a fun experience."
Last offseason Mack made sure Miller remembered Butler's title game appearance, bringing it up when they played pickup games or when they visited.
"I couldn't say nothing," Miller recalled with a chuckle. "He made it to the championship, and I didn't."
Mack also ribs his friend that in 2009, as freshmen, Miller's Cats were relegated to the NIT while Butler made the NCAA Tournament. Mack joked that Miller's only counter is that Mason County won the state high school championship their senior year.
But Mack is happy that Miller has earned a trip to the Final Four and likes having the Wildcats in Houston.
He expects to have about 10 friends and family down from Lexington cheering him on Saturday night when Butler plays VCU in a national semifinal.
"When you grow up in Lexington, you dream about going to the Final Four," Mack said. "You always dream about having the Wildcat uniform on, but some people's situations are different. I was blessed to have the opportunity to go to Butler University. I think it's the right choice, and I've been blessed to have two opportunities to go to the Final Four."
The friends had the goal of both making it to the Final Four this season, and they've reminded each other of that target throughout the tournament.
"That's how we ended our conversations: Every time we said, 'Bye, see you in Houston,'" Miller said. "I'm just happy to see it work out."
Mack said Miller gave him some scouting advice about Florida before the Bulldogs played the Gators in the regional final. Mack said he told Miller what he knew about Ohio State before UK faced the Buckeyes in the Sweet 16.
Of course, if Butler gets by VCU, then UK beats Connecticut on Saturday, the friends will square off for the national title.
"For two years, I've finished ahead of him (in the postseason), so I'm trying to keep that alive," Mack said with a laugh.
But if Butler doesn't advance on Saturday, it seems all but certain that he'll be cheering Miller on.
"I'm really glad that UK is here; they deserve it," he said. "To see (Miller) have success ... is pretty special."