Repeating his take that Kentucky fans are crazy during Big Blue Madness, Wildcats coach John Calipari also acknowledged their justification to go wild.
And as a group of Wildcats legends raised the school’s eighth national championship banner to the Rupp Arena rafters Friday night, so did fans’ enthusiasm.
Calipari marked the start of practice by recognizing the latest contribution to Kentucky’s proud tradition, hoping it motivates this year’s squad to continue it.
”I came here to win national titles for you,” Calipari said as a capacity crowd at Rupp roared.
Kentucky’s latest recruits appeared ready to do that.
A capacity crowd was introduced to much-heralded big men Nerlens Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein, forward Alex Poythress and guard Archie Goodwin. Transfers Julius Mays and Ryan Harrow also debuted.
Cauley-Stein’s White squad held off Noel’s Blue team 56-55 in the scrimmage.
Kentucky opens Nov. 9 against Maryland.
”This is about celebrating the start of the season, but we’re still going to celebrate the 2012 national championship,” Calipari said. ”We’re here to celebrate the tradition of this program.”
The celebration of Calipari’s first championship as Wildcats coach and expectations for this year’s freshmen contributed to an electric atmosphere. Fans went crazy when the arena went dark at 7:30 p.m. and music blared to the entrance of Kentucky’s women’s team.
They were followed by T-shirt giveaways, 3-point shooting contests and a cheerleader performance that built anticipation for the Wildcats’ first practice.
Calipari and his players delivered, whipping up the crowd by entering to smoke machines and hip-hip music, with Goodwin emerging as the team’s best dancer so far.
”I will say this: if we were in a dance contest, we’re winning,” Calipari joked.
After introducing of group of Kentucky legends including Jack ”Goose” Givens, Ron Mercer and Vernon Hatton – who raised the bar with all eight banners – the Wildcats played a tighter than expected scrimmage.
Noel and Cauley-Stein showed their athleticism on both ends, eliciting cheers with dunks and blocks. Poythress displayed his ability to play several spots, and Goodwin offered glimpses of his ball-handling skills.
It ended two hours later with a video recounting the Wildcats’ path to the men’s championship, Calipari’s brief mission statement and players saluting a crowd that had been waiting for this night for a while.
Nearly 600 tents were pitched outside Memorial Coliseum for distribution of free tickets on Sept. 22, which were gone in half an hour.
Michael Gibson was among those camping out the previous four days, something he’s done for ”about six, seven years” by his count. It paid off: he was fourth in line, getting his four allotted freebies and giving them to friends despite a bunch of lucrative offers from Wildcats faithful.
”People were offering money right off the bat,” said Sturgill, wearing a blue ”Tent City Starts Here” T-shirt. ”I just wanted to see what they’ll have. It’s going to be a fun night.”
Jody Sturgill was a popular man walking around the concourse, mainly because of the blue Darth Vader costume. The padded outfit has served him well, getting him tickets to many games; several members of the Wildcats’ women’s basketball team even autographed it.
Rather than camp out like most fans, Sturgill got up in line at 2 a.m. that Saturday morning (without the costume) and got four tickets to his 15th Madness.
”I probably could’ve stood outside and gotten tickets because folks love the outfit and a lot of them are Star Wars fans,” the 41-year-old said between posing for pictures. ”But I just decided to get tickets the normal way. I wasn’t going to miss this.”
Others just used connections.
Tickets for Leslie Delk’s two previous visits to Madness came from his uncle and former Wildcat Tony Delk, most recently in 2010. This time he tapped former Kentucky graduate assistant coach Brandon Weems, who hooked him up with a couple of lower bowl seats near the concourse.
”I could’ve called him (for tickets), but my friend Brandon came through,” said Delk, who manages a local sportswear store. ”I had to be here for this one because they’ll probably hang the (championship) banner.
”This is exciting and having it in the evening is more convenient. But even if they held it at noon, it would still be electric. We’re UK. We’re obnoxious.”
Seventh grader Morgan McDonald was planning a party before her father surprised her and friend Halle Cline with tickets to their first Madness.
”He just asked, `What are y’all doing tonight?’ and gave us tickets,” McDonald said. ”I changed my mind about the party.”
Women’s volleyball opened the festivities, the first time a match was held at Rupp. About 8,000 saw Kentucky sweep Mississippi State by 25-18 scores.
Spotlights and loud music followed to introduce Kentucky’s women, coming off their second Elite Eight appearance in three years. And Wildcats coach Matt Mitchell again showed guts in his dance impersonation by channeling MC Hammer, working the baggy pants and sideways moves, albeit slowly and carefully.
”I just want to thank Hammer,” said Mitchell, who mimicked Michael Jackson last year.