At some point during the 2010-11 season, Colorado basketball fans fell in love with a freshman center named Ben Mills.

"I have no idea," said Mills, now a senior, when asked how he become so beloved. "It just happened, I guess. I just came in here my freshman year and people took a liking to me.

"Coming into the games and having the entire student section being excited and cheering for me, it was a little weird, but I liked it."

Mills still likes it, but this year, he would love to give CU fans something more to cheer about.

Now a senior, the 7-footer from Hartland, Wis., Mills has actually seen his role reduced in recent years. He played 92 minutes during his freshman year, but played just 21 minutes as a sophomore and 23 minutes as a junior.

Considering his success in high school -- he posted 17.1 points and 11.2 rebounds per game in winning a state championship as a senior at Arrowhead High School -- college has been a much different experience.

That doesn't mean it's been a bad experience, though.

"I thought I'd have more of a contribution on the court than I have had," Mills said. "I definitely saw my college career going differently than how it's gone, but I've still loved all four years that I've been here and hopefully I'll have an even better last year."

Throughout his career, Mills has played with Alec Burks, Cory Higgins, Carlon Brown and Andre Roberson, who all have had at least a cup of coffee in the NBA. Burks and Roberson were first-round picks. Current teammate Spencer Dinwiddie figures to get there next year, too.

As far as CU head coach Tad Boyle is concerned, however, seeing Mills get his degree next May will be an even bigger accomplishment.

"That brings me much more satisfaction than a kid going early to the NBA," Boyle said. "The bottom line is, what we're here to do is to help kids prepare for the real world and make sure they leave here with their degree, like Ben will. That's why we coach. That's why we do what we do as educators, to make sure that those opportunities that are available to them, that they make sure the opportunity is used and not thrown away."

Mills struggled academically early in his career and some questioned if he could make it through four years at CU.

"It was a difficult transition for me from high school to college," Mills said. "I started off a little rocky, but now I'm doing a lot better and know what I have to do to be better in the classroom."

Mills hasn't just gotten by, either; he has learned to excel. Earlier this year, the English major won an award for being the most improved student athlete at CU.

"It felt good to get that award," he said.

It would also feel good if Mills could have a bigger impact on the court. He played three solid minutes in CU's opener on Friday against Baylor. He didn't score, but had a rebound and an assist.

"The fans are going to see, hopefully, an improved Ben Mills," Boyle said. "A little bigger and strong Ben; a guy who can rebound and hopefully block some shots for us and clog up the middle, and give us an opportunity to bang and go up against other big post players."

Mills has added 10 pounds of muscle, increasing his weight to 230 pounds, and has held his own in practice against his teammates.

"I like this weight," he said. "I feel comfortable out there and stronger.

"I'm also definitely more confident and more comfortable in the system. I expect (more minutes on the court) and I'm excited for it. I'm ready to just do whatever the team needs me to do."

Throughout his career, Mills has earned a lot of respect from his teammates, proving he's not just a favorite among the fans.

"He's my favorite," sophomore Josh Scott said. "I like the fact that no matter what role he's put on the team, he always gives his full effort toward that role. He plays hard and he really cares about this team and his teammates. There can't be enough said about him for that."

Thoughts of going to another school, where he could have played more, crossed Mills' mind in the past, but he has no regrets as he embarks on his final year in Boulder.

"I take a lot of pride in what's been accomplished (as a team) in the four years I've been here," he said. "It's just been a lot of fun."

Mills would love nothing more than to make this year his best one in Boulder -- with the student section supporting him all the way, of course.

"I love the support the fans give me and I hope it continues and I hope I have a great year," Mills said. "I want to be able to play and help the team and also go as far as we possibly can and have the best senior year I possibly can."

Contact staff writer Brian Howell at howellb@dailycamera.com or twitter.com/BrianHowell33.