Rupp Arena gives Calipari rousing welcome

BY foxsports • October 17, 2009

On a stage befitting a rock star, John Calipari got his first taste of a packed house at Rupp Arena on Friday night and promised to return Kentucky basketball to "its rightful place at the top of the mountain." The new Wildcats coach made his entrance around 8:40 p.m. to chants of "Go Big Blue" during the program's preseason pep rally, Big Blue Madness. Then he spent the next 15 minutes delivering a rousing speech to a crowd that needed little convincing. "I see the foundation for my vision of this program," said Calipari, at points yelling so loud that his voice seemed to crack. "It's a vision where we are the gold standard, not just for college basketball but for all college athletics." Smoke and pyrotechnics filled the air as Calipari - decked in a gray shirt, not blue - strolled across a huge stage erected at one end of the arena, flanked by three enormous video boards and surrounded by screaming fans. Calipari's first words to the sellout crowd: "All I can say, you all are awesome." Before his arrival, the players were introduced one by one - standing on a catwalk above the center video screen as their names were called. A stirring video montage showed film clips - many of them black and white - of the great moments in the history of Kentucky basketball, which has won seven national titles and has more victories than any program. Among the words on the screen during the montage: "Envy our past. Fear our future." "I'm excited, I'm humbled and I'm honored to be your coach," Calipari said. "Tonight we turn the page from anticipation to preparation." After the players lined up to show off their best dunks, they split into teams for the customary scrimmage, which all-Southeastern Conference center Patrick Patterson started with three baskets - including two dunks. On display, at least partially, was Calipari's patented dribble drive, which he called "basketball's most exciting offense." It was also the fans' opportunity to get their first glimpse on the Rupp Arena court of a star-studded freshman class, headlined by John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe. "If I have the choice between experience and talent, I'm taking talent every time," Calipari said. Wall showed off the athleticism that has some proclaiming him as a national player of the year candidate. During one drive, he sped past two defenders near the free throw line, then went airborne, finishing with a backward dunk. Although offense was intended to be the star of the show, defense was largely nonexistent. At one point, Calipari interrupted the scrimmage by taking the microphone and pointing out this shortcoming. "Folks, I hope you're enjoying this, but do you see how far we have to go?" Calipari said. "All right, just so everybody understands it." Among those who made an appearance over the course of the evening were country star Eddie Montgomery and former Kentucky great Tayshaun Prince. Calipari asked if actress Ashley Judd was in attendance, but that wasn't immediately clear. Big Blue Madness went more than an hour before the men's team was introduced, starting with a fan nailing a long 3-pointer to win a home theater system. Before the UK women scrimmaged, coach Matthew Mitchell acknowledged he knew who the star of the evening was, humorously urging the crowd to support Calipari because he is "a little shy." Calipari replaced the fired Billy Gillispie six months ago after two tumultuous years, including last season when the Wildcats failed to even reach the NCAA tournament. The crowd cheered loudly and often for the new team leader, and the coach gratefully basked in it. "I want to thank the Big Blue nation for your warming and hospitality," he said. "You all have made us feel like we've been in the Commonwealth forever." Most of the Division I programs celebrated the official start of practice in their own ways. Defending national champion North Carolina held its annual "Late Night with Roy" event, which drew about 19,000 fans for a show that included team skits, music and dancing before the Tar Heels held an intrasquad scrimmage. It was the start of the program's centennial basketball season and the debut of this year's squad, which includes freshmen David and Travis Wear - the first twins to play for the Tar Heels. Despite losing four starters, including Tyler Hansbrough, the program's all-time leading scorer and rebounder, the Tar Heels boast a loaded frontcourt with senior Deon Thompson and sophomores Ed Davis and Tyler Zeller. Connecticut, Villanova and Michigan State, the other schools to reach the Final Four last season, all started the 2009-10 season on Friday. UConn men's coach Jim Calhoun made no guarantees or predictions for his team, but had one for the women's program which won its sixth national championship under coach Geno Auriemma last season. "Every single night we play a ballgame you make it very, very special for both teams," Calhoun told the crowd. "We're going to try to do everything we can. Now, unlike Geno, I can't promise you a national championship." Michigan State coach Tom Izzo had this season's Final Four in Indianapolis on his mind with his entrance to Breslin Center in a Spartan-green Indy race car. "Now that I know what it's like to drive an Indy car, I just hope I know what it's like to play again in Indianapolis, the city," Izzo said before a record crowd at Midnight Madness. Villanova coach Jay Wright wants the returning players to remember the feeling of success only four teams get to experience each season. He had a simple message for this season's Wildcats: The Final Four was a great achievement, but it means little once the ball tips this year. Maryland, the school where Midnight Madness began under coach Lefty Driesell in 1970, is known for current coach Gary Williams' arrival. Over the years he has shown up in a race car, on a motorcycle, in a limousine and in an armored vehicle. Not this year. The Terrapins are coming off a second-round appearance in the NCAA tournament and expect better things this season, so the focus turned primarily to basketball. "We want high expectations. Bring it on," Williams told the crowd after walking into Comcast Center. Duke's "Countdown to Craziness" was marked by two 12-minute Blue-White scrimmages in which the teams were coached by Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley, stars of the Blue Devils' two national championship teams in the early 1990s. Before that, a comedy video produced by the school's improv department and starring the players was shown. In it, the season was canceled because Cameron Indoor Stadium was too intimidating for opposing teams. As the players searched for alternate ways to fill the time, walk-on guard Casey Peters had the best line: "Go play for the Syracuse football team." Former starting point guard Greg Paulus is now the Orange's quarterback.

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