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COLLEGE BASKETBALL / NCAA TOURNAMENT

He's a Guard, but Call Him Andre the Giant

College basketball: Utah's Miller makes name for himself by standing tall during tournament.

March 25, 1998|GREG SANDOVAL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Utah point guard Andre Miller is like the B movie that turns into a box-office smash.

Miller is taking the rest of the country by storm, only nobody knows who he is.

"I didn't know a lot of about him before we played," West Virginia Coach Gale Catlett said. "But you watch film on him, you realize you have to pay special attention to him. He's the key to their team and one of the best guards we have played this season."

High praise, considering that the Mountaineers played St. John's, with Felipe Lopez, and Syracuse, with Jason Hart.

The Utes are not on television much, and didn't play too many ranked teams during the regular season, so they didn't get much exposure but can that explain the 18 points, 14 rebounds and 13 assists Miller had in leading Utah to one of the biggest upsets of the tournament and perhaps one of the biggest in school history?

He is averaging 17 points, 7.3 rebounds and 6.3 assists during the tournament, compared to 13.5, 4.9 and 4.9 regular-season averages.

"I knew he was a great player before, but now everyone's finding out about him," said New Mexico Coach Dave Bliss, whose Lobos played the Utes twice during the regular season. "He's never been called on to do the things he's doing now.

"He's an artisan; he's scoring, he's a one-man fastbreak and a tough defender. If you don't stop him, Utah wins."

So why is Miller showing his talent now? He averaged 14 points and five rebounds a game during the regular season.

Eyeball Miller on the basketball court and you see an iron will. He's hard-trained, and coldly calculating, steering his team with a technician's exactness.

Miller is a 6-foot-2, 200-pound walking textbook of basketball fundamentals: He sets picks, protects the ball and rebounds.

But the reason for his recent success is his creativity, his ability to make plays against teams like Arkansas and West Virginia, who threw some of the most complicated pressure defenses at him.

"[Arkansas and West Virginia] have pressed us, and that has allowed Andre to pick up some easy baskets in transition," Coach Rick Majerus said. "You have to attack the press, you can't be tentative. Andre has been very aggressive."

But it goes beyond aggression. Whether driving the length of the court and finishing with a finger roll, or breaking a defender down off the dribble in traffic, it's not so much Miller time, as Arkansas Coach Nolan Richardson called Miller's game, as showtime.

"Most of my game comes from playing street ball," said Miller, who grew up in Los Angeles and played at Verbum Dei High. "I've learned a lot about the game from Coach Majerus and from Coach [Michael] Kearney, my high school basketball coach, but most of the basketball I know, I picked up in the neighborhood."

Growing up in South Central, Miller cut his basketball teeth on the throbbing L.A. streets, with its writhing hip-hop beats, cross-over dribbles and showy behind-the-back passes.

"There were a lot of good players that played in the parks," Miller said.

"I was competitive and wanted to show that I was one of the better players in the area, so I watched and learned a lot from the older guys. I played wherever I could get a game."

A slightly overweight high school player, Miller didn't attract much tion.

"I think Utah and Long Beach State were the only two schools recruiting him," said Seth Greenberg, former 49er coach now at South Florida.

"I liked him the first time I saw him. He was smart, a little chubby, but he could break you down and get in the lane, change directions and speed as quickly as anyone."

Coaches who have played against Miller regularly know exactly what North Carolina is up against Saturday, when those teams meet in the NCAA tournament semifinals.

"You have to stop them in transition or he'll score a load of cheap baskets against you," Utah State Coach Larry Eustachy said. "Nobody thinks those guys are good athletes, but that's not true."

Greenberg said of Miller: "This is a guy who has worked so hard to improve his game at every level that if they tell him to improve his shooting, Andre will become a great shooter."

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