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Pitt teammates motivate Miller

Dwight Miller used to think he’d play his best college basketball game with the Pitt Panthers in the building.

Tennessee junior forward Dwight Miller

The junior Bahamian forward only recently learned that he’d still get at least one more shot to make that happen.

But he’d be battling against Pitt — not with the Panthers — to accomplish that goal.

Tennessee’s reserve forward doesn’t hold a grudge against Pitt coach Jamie Dixon, though, so don’t expect any bad blood to boil during today’s Vols-Panthers game in Thompson-Boling Arena.

“Yeah, I mean, I was wanting to get on the floor at Pitt, but this time I’m getting on the floor against Pitt, but I don’t know if I see it that (vengeful) way,” Miller said earlier this week. “It’s going to be great to see those guys again, you know, in this type of setting. I remembered I’d be on the bench, and we’d have conversations on the bench, and they’d be like, ‘Man, Dwight, if you transfer and you ever come back and play Pitt, you’re probably going to get 40.’

“I mean, that’s probably not going to happen, but if it does I’ll be happy. It’s just the irony in the fact that we talked about it all last year, and last year we made jokes about it, and now I’m getting an opportunity to play those guys.

“I just want to go out there and just compete.”

The 6-foot-8, 240-pound Bahamas native — by way of Houston’s St. Pius X High School — enrolled at Pitt as a consensus top-100 prospect, but he redshirted the 2008-09 season and played in just 16 games the following season.

After a frustrating individual redshirt freshman season that finished with averages of just 0.6 points and 1.1 rebounds in 5.3 minutes per game, Miller sat down with Dixon and asked for a release — which Dixon quickly granted.

Miller then spent one year at Midland (Texas) College — where he was ultimately named a top-10 junior college prospect — before signing with Tennessee in hopes of performing well on his return to the game’s bigger stages.

“I had a conversation with coach Dixon after the season,” Miller said. “Basically we talked about playing time, and the minutes that were going to be allocated, and I just ended up drawing the short end of the stick on that one. I just wanted to give myself the best opportunity, you know, to (play). I didn’t want to be that guy to just sit back and, you know, go for the ride. I just wanted to play more, you know, and have a more hands-on approach to games, instead of just sitting on the bench, so I decided to give myself a chance and try to make it work somewhere else, you know?

“So far, you know, I think things are working out well. I’ve still got a lot of things to learn, but I’m happy I made the decision.”

Miller, a smart, personable player who has quickly became popular among coaches and teammates, has played in all six Tennessee games but averages just 2.8 points and 1.8 rebounds in 8.8 minutes. He’s played larger roles in a few games, including a seven-point, six-rebound night against Louisiana-Monroe and an eight-point, four-rebound performance in the Vols’ double-overtime loss to Memphis in the EA Sports Maui Invitational.

But Miller knows what everyone wanted to ask him this week.

“Everybody knows I went to Pitt,” he said with his thinly-veiled Bahamian accent on Wednesday afternoon. “It didn’t work out the way I wanted it to, but like I was telling some of my teammates earlier, you just want to approach this game like it’s just another team, you know? Obviously I know a lot of those guys and have relationships with those guys that I built when I was at Pitt.

“And obviously at Tennessee, it’s nice to go against those guys (Pitt) outside of practice, in an actual real game, so I’m just looking forward to the opportunity.

“They’re a great team. Any team you play, you should already be to the point where you have in your mind that you’re going to go as hard as you can for 40 minutes or more. This game is no different.”

But, as Miller continued, today’s game will be just a bit different.

Star guard Ashton Gibbs was Miller’s roommate both of Miller’s years at Pitt, and Gibbs and his mother remain close to Miller to this day.

“We still text and talk a lot. I talked to his mother a lot, too,” Miller said. “She always calls me and, you know, we have a lot of conversations, and she always tries to encourage me. Ashton does the same thing. We encourage each other, you know, if we have tough games.

“We’re like brothers, so we always try to stay in close contact, no matter what.”

And they have a bit of fun, too.

Miller gave Gibbs a pick-em-up, put-em-down message moments after Pitt’s Nov. 16 loss to Long Beach State — the Panthers’ only blemish of the season.

“I told him to keep his head up, you know ... but when they come here, it’s going to be another loss,” Miller said with a laugh. “That’s the type of stuff we do. You want to compete against those guys, obviously; you know them. And you want to win the game, just like any other game, but like I said, being around old friends is going to make it that much better.”

Miller pulled for Pitt in last season’s home-away-from-home game against the Vols in the Pittsburgh Penguins’ arena.

Of course, Miller didn’t know he’d ultimately sign with Tennessee at the time.

“Tennessee was a great team last year,” Miller said. “I was in junior college, and one of my teammates asked me if I saw the game; if I saw that Pitt lost to Tennessee. I had no idea that I was going to end up at Tennessee, which is also ironic, but, you know, being at Pitt, we only lost one home game when I was there in two years, and we played the best teams in the country.

“And to see them lose at home was tough.”

But seeing Pitt get beaten again by Tennessee wouldn’t bother Miller one bit, and the big Bahamian thinks lessons learned that day in Pittsburgh should help the Vols heading into today’s opening tip.

“You know, anybody can be beat, but to see a team as good as Pitt lose at home was shocking,” Miller said. “But, you know, ...like I say, night in and night out, you’ve got to be ready. Anybody can beat you on any given night.”

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MARTIN-DIXON LINE: Miller, who now has played for first-year Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin and Pitt’s Jamie Dixon, said the two have different-but-successful styles.

“Coach Martin and Coach Dixon are two very different individuals,” Miller said. “I think Coach Martin is a more laid-back type of guy. They’re two great coaches, obviously. I enjoyed being around those guys. You learn so much. They both really know the game and know how to get what they want out of their players.

Pitt hoops coach Jamie Dixon

“When it comes to the coaching aspect, aside from personal characteristics, I guess, I they’re two great coaches.”

Miller was asked to clarify what he meant by calling Martin more “laid-back.”

“Yeah. It’s just more laid-back,” Miller said. “I love both of those guys, but obviously people have different character traits than other people, you know?

“No one is better than another one. You know, I love both of the guys, like I said.”

Contact Wes Rucker at wrucker@247sports.com, www.twitter.com/wesrucker247 or www.facebook.com/wesrucker247

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