Salt Lake City —Coming off the bench fits Malcolm Miller like a glove. The junior guard has proven time after time this season he doesn’t need to be a starter to make an impact in a game for Southern.
Miller has been a game changer on the offensive end when his number is called. He is averaging 16.0 points on 52.1 percent shooting. He is also a big threat from the perimeter, dropping in 3-pointers at a 45.8 percent clip per game.
When Miller is on the floor, the Jaguars can simply do more of everything on offense. That has Southern feeling confident that he will be a secret weapon in breaking through against Gonzaga’s tough defense Thursday.
“It does everything for us,” senior guard Derrick Beltran said, concerning Miller’s contributions.
“He’s the key to our success. He plays really big situations like this, and I know he’s going to come through.”
A wrist injury before the season cost Miller his original spot in the starting lineup. Rather than sulk about potential lost minutes, Miller simply embraced his new role and stepped up his game up.
“It hasn’t been a problem, because in junior college, I came off the bench,” Miller said.“I had gotten hurt before the preseason started, so I had no choice but to come off the bench. And our coach told me he needed a spark off the bench. I never had a problem with it. I just wanted to come in and play my role and keep things going.”
Southern coach Roman Banks knows few players who work harder at improving their game than Miller does. Banks said that even while producing the numbers he does, Miller takes time to refine his skills and get a better understanding of both the offense and defense the Jaguars run.
His presence brings an extra dose of energy right when Southern needs it.
“To this point, it has given us extra motivation when he comes in the game,” Banks said. “We’re a different type of team offensively, and he’s a tremendous player. He is playing some of his better basketball now because he’s learning how to read screens, come off screens and learning our defensive philosophy.”
This is the third time Southern has qualified for an NCAA tournament as a 16 seed. The Jaguars first earned a 16 seed in 1985, when they lost to eventual Final Four participant St. John’s 83-59, and again in 2006 against Duke, when the Blue Devils notched a 70-54 victory.
Southern also has played as a No. 15 seed three times. The Jaguars were awarded a 15 seed each time during three consecutive NCAA appearances from 1987 to 1989 under coach Ben Jobe.
The Jaguars were a No. 13 seed in 1993 when they beat Georgia Tech in a first-round upset, then fell to George Washington in the second round.
Gonzaga built its reputation as a giant killer in past NCAA tournaments. The Bulldogs have graduated from that Cinderella status in a big way.
Since an Elite Eight run in 1999, the Zags have made 15 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances. That is the fourth most of any team in the nation behind only Kansas (24), Duke (18) and Michigan State (16). The Zags are 17-15 all-time in the NCAA Tournament.
This marks the second all-time meeting between Gonzaga and Southern. The two teams first met in Spokane to open the 2010-11 season. The Jaguars fell to the Zags 117-72. Gonzaga controlled the paint, outrebounding Southern 57-16, and led by as many as 48 points. The Zags shot 13-of-22 from the perimeter and shot 54.2 percent from the field overall.