Thousands of University of Kentucky basketball fans poured into Rupp Arena 13 hours ahead of the Florida game on Saturday to watch — and for some, to be the noisy backdrop for — ESPN's College GameDay show, which made its fifth visit to Rupp in program history.
Keith and Paula Pinson drove five hours from Morgantown, W.Va., on Friday night so they could beat the snow and be ready when doors opened at 8 a.m. Formerly of Pike County, the Pinsons have watched plenty of College GameDays on television, but this was their first time in the audience.
"I love Kentucky basketball," Keith Pinson explained.
Nearly 15,000 free tickets were distributed for the event, according to the UK basketball Twitter feed.
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For the live hour-long broadcast, ESPN planted an anchor desk at halfcourt in Rupp Arena, flanked by UK cheerleaders and backed by a roaring crowd of Wildcats fans.
The GameDay team — host Rece Davis and Jay Bilas, Digger Phelps and Jay Williams — talked soberly for 15 minutes about what it takes to win basketball games. (Spoiler alert: Your team needs to drop the ball through the hoop more than the other team.) Fans cheered every mention of UK and the Southeastern Conference and booed every reference to Florida.
The crowd cheered louder as Coach John Calipari walked onto the court during a commercial break, had pancake makeup applied to his forehead and sat for an interview.
Calipari and the ESPN hosts chatted about Oklahoma State basketball player Marcus Smart, who shoved a heckler in the stands toward the end of a game a week ago, drawing a three-game suspension. Calipari said he tells his players to focus on their games and tune out distractions, and he said he thinks arena security guards should toss loudmouths who are looking for trouble. But most fans would not try to start a fight with a player, he said.
"I think college basketball fans are the greatest fans," Calipari said to cheers, whistles and applause.
"Tell 'em, Cal!" and "We love you, Coach Cal!" people in the audience shouted.
The Wildcats walked onto the court in gray sweatsuits — more cheers — and the players and their coach stared up at the large video screens to watch a taped interview with Kentucky forward Julius Randle.
"Coach Cal describes you as a pit bull, an alpha beast. How would you describe your game on the court?" asked the interviewer, Skylar Diggins. "Super-intense," Randle answered. Randle closed the video by showing off some of his signature dance moves.
After the show, Bill Fain of Lexington was satisfied leaving Rupp Arena with his three young sons, Hudson, Jackson and Bennett, and their friend Clay, all talking excitedly about what they had just witnessed.
"The kids brought me out," Fain said.
The family didn't have tickets to the Florida game at 9 p.m., but they would watch it on ESPN at home, he said.
"Do we miss any Kentucky games?" Fain asked.
"No," Hudson replied.