Of all the differences between his old home and his new home, Daxter Miles Jr. chose the one with the easiest metaphor.
“The one thing that Baltimore don't have that West Virginia has is mountains,” he said Thursday, meaning the Alleghenies of the Appalachian Mountain Range. But is that a good thing? “I mean, they’re cool when the sun shines.”
Fitting, then, that in a career with more peaks than valleys, the West Virginia men’s basketball senior guard is sparkling as he nears the end of a standout career. The second-leading scorer for the fifth-seeded Mountaineers (26-10), Miles will take on fellow Baltimore native Phil Booth (Mount Saint Joseph) and top-seeded Villanova (32-4) on Friday night in the Sweet 16 in Boston.
It’s the third regional semifinal appearance in four years for Miles, who’s second in West Virginia history in career games started (123), behind only Johannes Herber (128). His first two times on this NCAA tournament stage, however, ended unpleasantly.
In 2015, the Mountaineers beat No. 4 seed Maryland and Melo Trimble in the second round to advance to face unbeaten Kentucky. Miles, then a freshman, said the Wildcats didn’t play hard enough to move to 37-0. “They’re gonna be 36-1,” he said.
Kentucky doubled up West Virginia, 78-39. Miles didn’t score.
Two years later, the Mountaineers met Gonzaga, which had lost once all season, in the Sweet 16. With 2:26 remaining in the game, Miles hit a 3-pointer to tie the game. West Virginia managed just three more points the rest of the way, the team’s dismal final possession ending with two missed 3-pointers by Jevon Carter and Miles holding the ball as time expired. The Bulldogs, like the Wildcats before them, went on to the Final Four, ultimately losing in the NCAA final.
“I think he learned a lot from that” Kentucky loss, said Cyrus Jones Sr., who coached Miles during his senior year at Dunbar, where the Poets won their fourth straight Class 1A state basketball championship behind a team-high 15 points from Miles. “He's always been a vocal kid. He's never been one to be quiet or never been one to shy down from any kind of competition. That was just Daxter being himself.”
Even before Miles transferred to Dunbar after starting his career at Archbishop Curley and spending his junior season at IMG Academy (Fla.), Jones knew Miles. Because he knew his father, too.
Jones and Daxter Sr. met playing ball in local recreation leagues and pickup games in Baltimore. Daxter was a great player himself, Jones recalled, so it wasn’t a surprise when his old friend resurfaced with Daxter Jr. in tow at games that Jones’ own son, Cyrus Jr. (Gilman), was playing in.
Daxter Jr. said he looked up to his father growing up. Baltimore basketball left a mark on the younger Miles — he counts Josh Selby, Will Barton, Aquille Carr and Malcolm Delaney among his influences — but so did the city itself.
Tattooed on Miles’ right forearm is the number 240, for 240 Bond Street, where he grew up in East Baltimore.
“Baltimore City isn't an easy place to grow up in,” he said. “But it taught me a lot. It actually did make me a mature man growing up, because I had to be a role model [to my brothers and sisters].”
His arrival in Morgantown has coincided with West Virginia’s best-ever four-year stretch in major-conference basketball. The Mountaineers last won at least 25 games in four consecutive seasons over 50 years ago, and Friday’s NCAA tournament game will be Miles’ 10th, tied for the most in school history.
In West Virginia’s full-court-pressure defense and motion offense, he has become the ever-dependable Robin to Carter’s Batman, his close friend and fellow senior. Alongside the All-American, Miles is averaging career highs in points (12.8), rebounds (2.8), and assists (3.1) per game while shooting 44.6 percent from the field and 34.3 percent from deep. He was named to the Big 12 Conference All-Tournament team two weeks ago after scoring 66 points over three days, leading the Mountaineers to the league final.
“He brings a lot of enthusiasm,” West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said earlier this season. “Dax likes to play. He likes to compete. He likes to win.”
And he loves home. As he walked with family to midcourt on senior day before West Virginia’s regular-season home finale last month, Miles was brought to tears. His embrace of Huggins went on for five, 10, almost 15 seconds. Before he and Carter combined to score 39 points in a win over Texas Tech, Miles knelt at at the school’s logo and planted a kiss.
“He's done a lot for the West Virginia basketball program,” said Jones, who also played for the Mountaineers. “And at the same time, West Virginia has done a lot for him to help him get to where he is now.”
“I just felt like West Virginia's been a wonderful place for me and [Carter],” Miles added. “We did great for the program, so I just felt like we owed them that much.”