Darius Miller had a decision to make.

It was a Friday morning, Sept. 7, 2007, and the high school senior basketball star from Mason County High School had struggled for months with the biggest decision of his young life.

Miller was debating where he would play college basketball. The 6-foot-7 forward with the smooth shooting touch was superbly talented. Ranked as one of the top 50 high school players in America, he had many suitors.

There was the hotshot University of Florida, which had won two recent national championships. There was legendary coach Rick Pitino, who after years of coaching at the University of Kentucky had switched allegiances to lead the Wildcats’ rival down the road, the University of Louisville. And there was the wild card, the University of Illinois, which had recruited Miller hard for years.

But of course, he was drawn to the school most dear to his heart. It’s the team that finds its way into the dreams of most Kentucky high school stars.

The University of Kentucky.

But the Wildcats were in a state of transition. Longtime coach Tubby Smith had left after a disappointing few seasons, and a new coach from Texas had taken his place, promising more wins and a return to national prominence.

Ready to Rebuild

The question was: Did Miller want to get on board? Did he want to help UK rebuild?

Throughout his recruitment, people claimed to know Miller’s destination. The smart money was on Illinois, they said. No, it was Florida. No, Louisville.

But on that morning in September, Miller got out of bed and made up his mind. Before school started, he dialed the number of his future coach and pledged his commitment.

As the news spread throughout the Bluegrass State, it reached the administration at Mason County High.

That morning, the day’s classes began with the playing of the University of Kentucky fight song over the school intercom.

Miller had decided to become a Wildcat.

The road was considerably more difficult and unpredictable than Miller could have ever imagined.

After his freshman year, the coach from Texas was fired for not taking the team to the NCAA Tournament. At UK — the school with the most wins in NCAA history — they will do that to you.

John Calipari, an impressively successful and controversial coach from Memphis, was chosen to lead UK next.

Calipari had proven himself as an excellent head coach (he’d led teams to two Final Fours and a National Runner-up finish) yet he’d also obtained a considerable amount of baggage. Both Final Four appearances had been vacated due to NCAA rule violations.

Still, in the eyes of Kentucky fans, Calipari was a savior. He immediately brought in the best players in the country, and Miller found that he was along for an amazing ride. His sophomore season, in which he became a starter, saw a team loaded with talent (John Wall and Demarcus Cousins, among others) which went to the NCAA’s final eight.

Triple MVP

His junior season, when more stars came in (including Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones) ended in a trip to the Final Four. Miller’s coming-out party occurred in three games during the conference tournament, when he was named Most Valuable Player. No one could argue that Kentucky basketball was back.

But those years were only the beginning. Since Calipari’s arrival, every fan and analyst had pointed to this season — the 2011-12 year. This was the year, they said. This was the time when the Cats would have a great mix of young and old talent, when they would have experienced leaders and precocious freshmen. This was the season when they could legitimately win the school’s first national title since 1998.

In November, UK was at the top of the polls.

Everything pointed to this year — Miller’s senior campaign.

A Dedicated Fan

Ted Arlinghaus sits in his expansive Edgewood home, decked out in a Kentucky Wildcat T-shirt and jeans. There’s a UK game coming on in an hour and he’s going to be watching.

“Yeah, we’re going to win it all, I believe it,” says the 61-year-old UK alumnus. “All the fans have been pointing to this year as the one where we’re going to win the championship. We knew it in ’78. We knew it in ’96. We got surprised in ’98, but this year, we know it again.”

Arlinghaus really should know. He could be the biggest UK fan in Northern Kentucky, an area that is sometimes forgotten when the legions of Big Blue fans across the state are mentioned. While there are many Cincinnati and Xavier fans (and even a few Louisville fans) to be found, no one should underestimate the influence the UK basketball team has in the northern region.

Nearly 11,000 Kentucky graduates live in the Northern Kentucky/Greater Cincinnati area, the UK alumni association says.

But has any fan — anywhere — built a UK-specific gymnasium, as Arlinghaus has? In 1992, while building his house, he decided to build an indoor gym out back as a replica of Kentucky’s home court, Rupp Arena. Over the years it’s become known as “Rupp Arena North.”

Believing in Miller

“I didn’t really set out to do that,” he says, “but we were able to get a lot of autographs from some of the players in 1992 and we put them in the gym, and we got a friend to paint the logo at center court, and it just kind of turned into it.

“Now people come from everywhere to play in it.”

Even Arlinghaus knows that if Kentucky is going to live up to its potential, Miller will have to help lead the way.

“I hope he can do it,” he says. “I remember watching him in high school and thinking he was going to be an incredible player.”

But the talent for Kentucky this season is so immense that Miller has seen his role reduced. The team was ranked No. 2 in the nation to start the year, and sometimes Miller has been forced to come off the bench.

No matter, he says. His last year is all about one thing: Winning a national championship.

“We are all going to play anyways and have a big part in helping the team,” Miller said in response to a question from Danville journalist Larry Vaught about not starting. “We don’t even think about it.”

What Miller and the other players on this year’s squad think about is getting back to the Final Four.

“It hasn’t been discussed, but it’s what everyone wants,” sophomore forward and preseason All-American Terrence Jones said before the team’s first game. “We haven’t talked about it as a team, but it’s what everyone’s goal is.”

“I know Coach (Calipari) wants to win every game,” said freshman point guard Marquis Teague. “That’s why he looks so upset on the court. He just wants to win so bad and he is so passionate about it.”

“[Winning the championship] is a goal,” freshman forward Anthony Davis said. “You keep focusing on your goal and you can accomplish it. We’re just trying to go out here, play hard, win games, and accomplish our goals.”

Most say the team will have to rely on Miller’s senior leadership to reach their national title hopes. And in a career that has seen wild highs (his SEC Tourney MVP) and lows (most notably passing up a game-winning shot in a late-game situation last year), Miller will need to be more consistent as well.

“I need to step it up in the leadership category,” Miller says.

“I’m really trying to lead by example. I’m trying to go hard every day and talk to the other guys and make sure they know what’s going on.”

Miller knows how to win a championship, something he did as a senior at Mason County.

“It takes a lot of hard work and a lot of dedication,” Miller says. “There are going to be a lot of sacrifices made. One big aspect is that we have to be a team and be on the same page. We have to be like a family. If people are on different pages then it’s not going to work.”

Calipari agrees.

“I want (my players) to have peace of mind, do the best you can, be your brother’s keepers; what is supposed to happen will happen,” the coach says. “I want them to also dream big dreams. I want them to think beyond their surroundings.  I want them to be the best. I want our team to be the best. But in between then, where we are now and that kind of goal, is a lot of togetherness and a lot of sacrifice and guys having to give up some of their games and all those things.”

It’s something Miller already knows.

“He’s not been consistent with it, but I think he knows this is his senior year. You know, let’s bring it, let’s do it,” Calipari says. “And I’ve also said it’s unconventional, this team, because we have probably six or seven starters. 

“Who do you start? I don’t know yet. I do know that they will be the most consistent players on and off the court, guys that we know we can count on to start that game and we’ll go from there.”

And if Miller’s college career ends in the exact same manner as his high school career — with a championship — Miller and all the people of Northern Kentucky would be the first to say this crazy basketball ride was well worth it.

“I’ve been through a lot since I’ve been here with the ups and downs of UK basketball,” Miller says. “I mean, it’s fun to be on top.

“Hopefully it’s a fun and exciting season.” ■