MARSHALL - Looking to improve his game in the offseason, Southwest Minnesota State guard Jordan Miller went up against teammate Lavione West.
All summer, Miller, a predominant perimeter shooter who averaged 11.1 points per game as a redshirt freshman last season, would try to find ways to score around West, a lanky, athletic 6-foot-7 forward.
"Not all the guys in this league are that long and athletic on defense," Miller said of West. "We'd just critique each other so much that we almost got into fights about stuff. We really helped each other out and made each other more confident."
Independent file photo
Southwest Minnesota State guard Jordan Miller leads the Mustangs this season with 16.3 points per game. He is also averaging 5.9 rebounds per game in eight starts this season
Coming to SMSU at the same time, West said he and Miller took a workman-like approach to the court during their 1-on-1 games, hoping to both make a bigger impact this season.
"When we were on the court, we were no longer friends, no longer buddies," West said. "We wanted to make each other better, and the only way to do that was to compete.
"We're teammates, we're close friends, we're close to being brothers. It's just one of those things that on the court, it's all business. We love to play basketball and that's why I think we are so passionate about it. ... This is what we want to do for possibly the rest of our lives."
With help from West and with added experience and time in the weight room, Miller has emerged in the early part of the season as SMSU's most potent offensive threat.
Through eight games this season, Miller has averaged a team-high 16.3 points per game, and is second on the Mustangs with 5.9 rebounds per game.
SMSU head men's basketball coach Brad Bigler said Miller's basketball family background has given the Mustang guard a better understanding of the game. Jordan's father, Alan, is the all-time leading scorer at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell, S.D., Jordan's hometown. Jordan's cousin, Jared, played for SMSU during the Mustangs' NCAA regional championship run in 2000-01.
"Sometimes, you get guys who are great athletes that don't understand how to play the game, but that's not the case with Jordan," Bigler said. "Jordan's a guy who is fortunate enough to be blessed with both. He's got a feel for the game and has the athleticism and skill set to make him a special player."
But after redshirting his freshman year, Miller nearly left SMSU without playing a game, nearly transferring to Dakota Wesleyan before deciding to come back to the Mustangs.
Miller was unsure how his teammates would handle his return after nearly transferring, but those initial fears were extinguished.
"When I came back, it helped that it didn't bother the guys," Miller said. "They took me in like I was still here from the first year, which really helped me out confidence-wise. They told me, 'We'll take you in. We understand what happened.' It helped me out that way."
And after SMSU's run last season - a 17-12 record and nearly winning the NSIC conference tournament - Miller is glad he stayed in brown and gold.
"It was worth it," he said.
Coming into his second season as a starter, Miller wanted to get better. So he went 1-on-1 with West, and he hit the weight room.
"Throughout the summer, he easily is one of our hardest workers and a guy who puts in the time, works on his game and develops his game as much as anybody," Bigler said.
Going 1-on-1, West made it his goal to lock down Miller's perimeter shooting. In doing so, Miller was able to develop new ways of scoring, getting better at taking it to the hoop.
"We really connected this year and that helped," Miller said.
West was skeptical if their 1-on-1 games made Miller a better player, because West believes Miller already had the tools.
"I would give it all to Jordan," West said. "He's really a complete player. He can do it all. He has nice vision and sets up his teammates well.
"When I'm guarding him, I have to make him do things he doesn't want to do, which is put the ball on the floor. But now, I don't think that anybody can do that to him. You can't just think, 'Well, he's just a shooter,' because now, he can attack and take it to the rack."
This season, Miller's rebounds and assists are up. But where his game has taken the biggest leap has been on the defensive end, helping the Mustangs hold opponents to a conference-best 63.2 points allowed per game.
"I joked last year several times that we were playing 4-on-5 out there with him on defense. That would not be the case this year," Bigler said. "He's a lot more confident in defending personnel and his rotation, and he's anticipating better on the backside. When you grade him on film, that's probably his biggest improvement."
"When you play 1-on-1 everyday (with West), it helps you learn how to stop someone driving," Miller said. "Another aspect is just getting stronger and that we emphasize about 75 percent of practice on defense."
Even through seeing Miller improve over the summer, West said Miller's biggest trait on the court is his competitiveness.
"In all my years playing basketball, no one, other than myself and a couple of my teammates, have the passion of the game like Jordan," West said. "His willingness to win and not wanting to lose, it's a really strong feeling. With that, it helps a lot of us."