UK Men's Basketball

UK fans lay it on the line for Madness tickets

The tents almost encircling Memorial Coliseum and the Joe Craft Center startled University of Kentucky English professor Whitney Kurtz-Ogilvie as she walked across campus to her 10 a.m. class Wednesday.

"What the hell?" she asked herself.

Having been studying in Chicago the past six years, Kurtz-Ogilvie was not attuned to the significance of the first day UK permitted basketball fans to camp for Saturday's distribution of tickets to this year's Big Blue Madness.

Then the scene inspired Kurtz-Ogilvie. She saw what she called an "anthropology project" for her students to investigate and improve their interviewing skills.

"You have to go outside your comfort zone to where the juice is," Kurtz-Ogilvie said in describing the best conditions for interviews. "You have to follow the juice."

The juice is especially pungent in the UK basketball subculture this year. New coach John Calipari's whiz-bang start — including the recruitment of the nation's No. 1-rated freshman class and a cascade of fan-friendly tweets — intoxicates the annual Madness encampment with the sweet nectar of superiority.

"I think he's going to get us back to where we were in '96 and '98," said UPS driver Jerry Roberts, 40, in reference to Kentucky's two most recent national championships. "And I think he's going to get us there faster than anyone."

As of Wednesday evening, the encampment outside Memorial Coliseum numbered 205 tents, according to UK.

Charles Wofford, in a wheelchair because of a lung disease, also saw Calipari returning Kentucky basketball to a rarefied status.

"Calipari is going to put the spirit back in it like (Adolph) Rupp had it," said Wofford, 66. "Maybe not the Final Four (this coming season), but next year I'm pretty sure he will. We're going to have a hoppin' team the next few years. It's going to be like Christmas."

In some parts of this sub-culture, this day felt like Halloween. Some fans felt tricked.

Jeff Miller, a native of Harlan now living in Lexington, sent an e-mail of complaint to UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart less than an hour after the official 8 a.m. start to the campout. He later sent an e-mail to UK President Lee T. Todd Jr.

Miller complained about the system of distributing vouchers. He accepted that each voucher would be good for two tickets this year, down from the four of last season.

But Miller said that fans had no advance knowledge that the vouchers would be distributed Wednesday morning. The vouchers had been handed out on a Friday evening last year in advance of a ticket distribution the next morning.

After helping set up camp, Miller took his son, Austin, to school and then went to work. That left only his wife, Elizabeth, at the Coliseum, where she could get only one voucher good for two tickets.

Miller intends to be at Memorial Coliseum on Friday when UK plans to distribute more vouchers. But his family will have two tickets in one location and a third somewhere else in Rupp Arena for Big Blue Madness on Oct. 16.

"If they'd just give us one hour, we'd have gotten back over there and got back in line long enough to get a (second) voucher," Miller said. "We can follow the rules if we know what the rules are. It's their game. They can set what rules they want to set. But when you're playing a game, you need to know what the rules are before the game starts."

Why distribute vouchers on a Wednesday morning when children are at school and many adults are at work, Miller asked.

"It's not very good P.R., whatsoever," he said.

Another fan, Fred Malone, had a similar experience.

"This will definitely be my last year," he wrote in an e-mail. "I almost packed up this morning and came home, but I didn't. My kids would have been really disappointed."

As of Wednesday afternoon, Miller had not received a reply from Barnhart nor Todd.

UK spokesman DeWayne Peevy described the distribution of some vouchers Wednesday as a spur-of-the-moment reaction to the size of the crowd.

Peevy added the fans' complaints about the surprise distribution of vouchers "will help determine if we want to do (surprise distributions) in the future."

Meanwhile, Ray Thompson looked like a kid on Christmas morning. He got such players as Darius Miller, John Wall and Eric Bledsoe to autograph his basketball as they walked to class.

"This is what it's all about to me," said Thompson, 43, a factory worker from Lebanon. "Madness is OK. Camping out, meeting the players (is better)."

Then Thompson walked away. "I'm going to get my camera," he said.

The scene seemed strange to Jessi Quillen, a native of Utah who this year accompanied her husband, Jared, to UK, where he's working on a master's degree in business administration. They met as students at Utah State.

When asked for her outsider's perspective, Jessi said, "It's insane. I think it's awesome.

"I tell everyone back home, we're going to camp out for tickets. They say, 'Tell your husband, no. What are you doing?'"

To which Jared noted, "They just don't get it."