UK basketball: Big Blue Madness rocks the senses

jtipton@herald-leader.comOctober 18, 2013 

  • UPCOMING DATES

    All events in Rupp Arena

    Oct. 29: Blue-White Scrimmage, 7 p.m.

    Nov. 1 and 4: Exhibition games vs. Transylvania and Montevallo, 7 p.m.

    Nov. 8: Regular-season opener vs. UNC Asheville, 7 p.m.

That lunar eclipse Friday night? Surely it was the shadow of Kentucky basketball that darkened the full moon.

Once again, Blue Big Madness served as a means for proclaiming an evergreen (everblue?) sentiment that Cat fans never tire of hearing: UK is the preeminent college basketball program.

In earlier incarnations, Madness allowed Coach John Calipari to call UK basketball the gold standard "not just for college basketball, but for all college athletics." That was in 2009. Two years later, he boasted about how the program fascinated "tens of millions" on a global scale.

A record Madness budget of more than $400,000 this year all but mandated that Calipari round ever upward.

"The Big Blue Nation extends far beyond the hallowed halls of college basketball's greatest arena," Calipari said in what's become his biennial state-of-the-program address. "It's a nation that stretches across 120 counties in Kentucky, all 50 states and to every country in the world.

"We are borderless. We are everywhere. No corner is left untouched by the blue mist."

Incidentally, a Kentuckian, former Georgia Coach Hugh Durham, coined the term blue mist.

In his 10-minute address, Calipari seemed to make a blatant pitch to the recruiting prospects in Rupp Arena and presumably elsewhere in this quadrant of the galaxy. "If you want to be developed as an NBA player, if you want to be developed as a person of character, you come here," the UK coach said.

Surely nobody missed the intended targets of that remark. In case anyone did, the prospects made a conspicuous entrance by being escorted along the length of the sideline to their seats behind one of the benches. Although the arena was darkened, the crowd cheered the prospects and their families.

This moment crystallized the true meaning of Madness. As Auburn Coach Tony Barbee noted earlier in the week at the Southeastern Conference Media Days, "These events are all created for recruiting."

Not once, not twice, but three times UK claimed "the greatest tradition in the history of college basketball" for itself. Calipari said so in his address, which required a portable mini stage set in front of the mammoth platform used for player introductions that dazzled.

After Calipari's stump speech and before those introductions, public address announcer Patrick Whitmer shouted a reference to the greatest tradition. Perchance any still-oblivious UK fans were in Rupp Arena, a large video screen rotating over center court showed the same message in print.

Calipari suggested a college basketball landscape populated by Kentucky and anonymous collections of Washington Generals.

"Our biggest opponent? Ourselves," he said. "At Kentucky, we are competing against ourselves every day. We can't let the strain and spotlight of this program affect you.

We are the place to help you achieve your dreams. We don't just play college basketball, we are college basketball."

The program does not merely win games and develop NBA players. It shows young people how to be successful and productive citizens, Calipari said. Like America's Navy, it's a global force for good.

UK's heralded freshmen did not disappoint. Julius Randle. The Harrison twins. James Young. Dakari Johnson. Marcus Lee. Derek Willis. All looked capable of turning expectations into reality.

The familiar components of Madness re-appeared. UK women's coach Matthew Mitchell danced, this time in a James Brown impersonation that included a black wig.

Associate Director of Athletics Jason Schlafer noted how past Madness events had emphasized light or sound. With a record budget, UK wanted to both blast ears and dazzle eyes this year.

UK did.

During player introductions, UK realized a long-held goal of having the players first come into view by rising from beneath the stage.

Almost lost in the tumult was the ignominious ending to Kentucky's 2012-13 season: a first-round NIT loss at Robert Morris.

"We were humbled," Calipari said. "I was humbled. Tonight, we put into action what we learned as we strengthen our program and take the first step on a new journey.

"The competition will be fierce, the road will be difficult. Every team we play will be more experienced than us. But if we become one unit, play with one heartbeat and a love for one another, we will be unbreakable."


Upcoming dates

All events in Rupp Arena

Oct. 29: Blue-White Scrimmage, 7 p.m.

Nov. 1 and 4: Exhibition games vs. Transylvania and Montevallo, 7 p.m.

Nov. 8: Regular-season opener vs. UNC Asheville, 7 p.m.

Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com.

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