UK Recruiting

Curtain lifts on season of high Big Blue hopes

Alex Poythress at the rim during Big Blue Madness in Rupp Arena Friday, Oct. 17
Alex Poythress at the rim during Big Blue Madness in Rupp Arena Friday, Oct. 17 Lexington Herald-Leader

Big Blue Madness 2014 could have used one of John Calipari's much-ballyhooed tweaks.

Kentucky's annual Big Blue Madness Friday night had a by-the-numbers feel. The show — which cost $300,000 to produce — hit the familiar marks: women's coach Matthew Mitchell impersonated a singer/dancer (Bruno Mars this year), the women scrimmaged, the cheerleaders tumbled, the music blared, spotlights roamed, Wizard of Oz smoke rose in the air, the men scrimmaged.

But when the most memorable moments involved rapper Drake, who did not rap, there was little full-throated madness in Rupp Arena this year.

Calipari's farewell to the capacity crowd told the tale.

"How about this group?" he said of the 2014-15 players when the two-hour show ended. The crowd cheered as if by rote.

Then the UK coach said, "How about Drake being here for us?" The cheers were noticeably louder. The crowd loved the Drake, perhaps because they hoped his presence might influence the seven high-profile recruiting prospects in attendance.

If Kentucky's annual Big Blue Madness Friday night was a hockey game, the first star would have been Drake. When it came time to introduce the men's team an hour after the metaphorical curtain went up, he stood on the makeshift stage at one end of the Rupp Arena floor and proclaimed the coming of "one of the most exciting years in Kentucky basketball."

Then Drake began an introduction of Calipari. "A man who's definitely one of the most important people in my life," he said. "He's the godfather for us who bleed blue. He's probably got the best hair I've seen in my life."

Then Drake updated the signature Groucho Marx introduction. "The one, the only Coach Cal," he said.

Drake stood to Calipari's left on the platform as the UK coach made welcoming remarks.

"Enough talking," Calipari concluded. "Let's ball!"

Only Kentucky did not ball. Instead, Calipari divided his team into 3-on-3 games on each end of the court, which diffused the crowd's attention.

The 5-on-5 scrimmage that followed fared better. Andrew Harrison drew cheers with passes that netted a dunk by twin brother Aaron Harrison and two dunks for Marcus Lee. The crowd appreciated freshman Tyler Ulis advancing the ball with passes rather than dribbles and hitting a double-clutch leaner in the lane, Devin Booker and Willie Cauley-Stein collaborating on a pretty pick-and-roll.

Nothing cast doubt on Kentucky's hopes of a memorable, perhaps historic, season.

But what transpired this night bore little resemblance to the delight engendered by previous Big Blue Madness celebrations. No projection cloth. No revolving video boards over center court. No light-up jerseys. No touching re-hoisting of title banners by heroes of yesteryear.

Even Drake got panned. When he shot a three-point air ball while warming up with the UK players prior to their scrimmage, a playful tweet from recruiting analyst Evan Daniels proclaimed him a zero-star player.

"This is going to be a process," Calipari said of transforming his players into a team. "We're trying things that have never been tried.

"I can promise you this is a talented group of great young men that are representing you."

As fans filtered into Rupp Arena before Madness, there was a sense of times ahead this coming season.

Amanda Rich of Tompkinsville noted how she tried for four years before succeeding in getting Madness tickets for herself, her husband Greg and their son, Eric, 8.

What made the difference in getting tickets this year?"My phone," she said with a smile. "I got up really early." By calling at 5 a.m. CDT, she got tickets.

Eric had not yet decided on a favorite player. "I do like the coach, Coach Cal," he said.

Madness as reward

Tay Henderson, the executive director of the Lexington-based Lighthouse Ministries, said Madness served as a reward for seven people using the charity to recover from substance abuse.

UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart, who for three years taught a class at Lighthouse Ministries, arranged for Madness tickets. The tickets went to those who have followed the charity's rules and made progress in their rehabilitation.

"Long-term, they see good things happen to you when you do the right thing," Henderson said.

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