Brooks: Mills Contributes To Buffs In Variety Of Ways
AUSTIN, Texas - I couldn't figure Ben Mills settling into the Taylor Swift genre, but then Andre Roberson probably couldn't figure he and Mills eventually settling in as roomies. Strange things happen.
If Mills and Roberson weren't The Odd Couple of Colorado men's basketball, scan the roster for another pair and get back to me.
Mills is the quintessential small-town (Hartland) Wisconsin kid, Roberson is a city dweller from Texas (San Antonio). They arrived in Boulder three summers ago as CU freshmen with very little to no idea of who the other was.
But, recalled Mills, "I think we pretty much clicked right away. We hung out together, lifted (weights) together and lived together our whole freshman year . . . when you're with someone that long, you tend to know a whole lot about them. We have a lot of stuff in common and have a good time together."
Added Roberson: "We just kind of have the same personalities. We were the only two freshmen (in that class) and were just kind of put together . . . I feel like we mesh a little bit. It's pretty cool."
Roberson's three-year mark on Buffs hoops is more easily identifiable than his buddy's. GÇÿDre' is a rebounding monster; he needs 18 boards - a very attainable number if CU can play a pair or more of NCAA Tournament games - to become the school's career leading rebounder.
He currently has 1,037 - 339 of them snatched this season. Mills currently has 43, a dozen of them this season. Those night-and-day numbers offer a telling snapshot of their CU careers. But the numbers don't offer a hint of what each means to the Buffs, particularly in Mills' case. Teams, even schools' student bodies, need players like Mills.
CU coach Tad Boyle tells of having prospects on campus and at the end of their official visits asking them who they bonded with among the Buffs. Invariably, Mills' name is mentioned. "Ben's name comes up a lot," Boyle said. "He's a very out-going, fun guy to be around. You can see that in the way students react to him. His teammates love him and his coach feels the same way."
But that coach/player bonding took time to take hold. In his early days in the basketball program, Boyle recalled, Mills "wouldn't say boo around the coaches. Behind the scenes, when the coaches aren't around, that's when his personality would show itself to his teammates . . . but he's finally starting to open up around coaches."
Credit that change, said Mills, to maturity. "I definitely came in as that shy little freshman from that small town in Wisconsin," he said. "I think I've grown and matured a bunch since I got here. When I came in, I guess you could say I was pretty shy around the players and coaches. But being here as long as I have, I've definitely gotten a lot more comfortable around everybody."
That comfort level showed itself earlier this season when the team taped its version of the Harlem Shake, aka the Millshake. The starring role went to . . . right. Mills said he had to be asked more than once by his teammates (or maybe told by them) before agreeing to do it. He said he was "really ashamed of my performance," but I'm not sure I believe that.
If CU had drawn Wisconsin rather than Illinois in its NCAA Tournament opener, Mills wouldn't have minded. In fact, "I would have loved it," he said. "I've always wanted to play against them. I've got a bunch of friends who play for them and it would have been a fun game for me, for sure."
Mills won't be offended if you call him a cheese head. "I grew up a big (Wisconsin) fan, but I had family play at Wisconsin and Marquette, so I was kind of in-between," he said. "But yeah, I guess you could say I'm a cheese head."
He has been more of a locker room force than an on-court tour de force, which brings us back to that early mention of Taylor Swift. For some reason, when Mills was a freshman, former CU guard Nate Tomlinson - an Aussie with an attitude - and forward Austin Dufault appointed/sentenced Mills to select the Buffs' postgame locker room tunes. And for some reason, he still does.
Mills' music tastes are said to center on the GÇÿ80s, so that era began showing up as well as some country, some pop and, yes, some Taylor Swift. Added Roberson with a laugh, "He's a big-time Taylor Swift guy with a little bit of country . . . there's a little bit of everything in his genre."
Mills' regular-season minutes were sparse and that might or might not change in the postseason. In CU's Pac-12 Conference Tournament game against Arizona, he came off the bench in the first half for five minutes when 6-11 junior Shane Harris-Tunks went down with a concussion. Mills hit one of two free throws and grabbed a couple of rebounds, earning Boyle's and Roberson's admiration for being prepared to play.
"The way he's played every time he's given an opportunity says a lot about him," Boyle said. "That's not an easy thing to do, coming in late in a game or late in a first half."
Said Roberson: "Coach Boyle preaches when it's your time to shine, that's what you do. And I feel (Mills) took advantage of it. He was three years on the bench and I feel like he stepped up big time in that game and gave us an energy boost."
Mills called that rare first-half experience enjoyable, exciting and was overjoyed for the opportunity. Moreover, he believed he "held my own out there. Every time I get on the court I try and work as hard as I can and be as productive as I can."
The possibility of Mills seeing the court on Friday when the Buffs face the Illini (3:30 p.m. MDT, TNT) might have been lessened by Harris-Tunks' return to practice on Wednesday. Harris-Tunks was "full go" in CU's workout before the team departed for Austin, with a better determination of his game-day status probably coming on Thursday.
But Mills will be ready if called on. He draws his daily motivation from being prepared and going all-out. "Every day is a new day and going against some pretty good guys every day helps me in practice," he said. "I'm always ready. If Shane isn't ready to go, I will be and will look forward to it."
Both Boyle and assistant coach Mike Rohn say Mills' improvement this season could mean an expanded role for him next season. Mills' scout team contributions have impressed Rohn to the point where Rohn calls him "one of our most improved guys. Ben's had a good year, he's really improved this season, and mostly it's been in him catching up to the speed of the game . . .
"We play pretty fast here. It's a change for him having to keep up with the speed, showing on ball screens and playing our aggressive style of defense and offense. This year he's caught up more because we see him scoring more in practice; that's something he hasn't always been able to do. It's giving him more confidence.
"I think next year Ben might be in a position where he really can help us. He just has to keep getting better defensively, and that's one thing Shane has helped him with a lot. Shane is as good a team defender as you can find. That's kind of the thing right now that separates those two guys."
But Mills is working on narrowing that gap, and according to Roberson, "That's one thing I respect about Ben . . . he does what's best for the team, not just individually. I tip my hat to him for that. When it's his time to shine like it was at Arizona, he played. He's done a great job for us."
Mills is a very lean 7-footer, but claims he's up about 30 pounds (to the 220-225 range) from his freshman year. If it's possible for him to put on more pounds, it wouldn't hurt. "I think he's worked hard in weight room," Boyle said. "So who knows? The fact that he stuck it out tells me what he's capable of."
If his on-court capabilities now are greater than they were, his off-court contributions are holding steady. "He definitely brings an all-around personality to the team," Roberson said. "Everyone gets along with him. Just a great guy . . . it's great to have him in the locker room."
Ben Mills will tell you it's great to be there, but better to be on the court. That time might be coming, but he's made an impact nonetheless.