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October 18, 2013

Kentucky ups the ante on Big Blue Madness

The past, present and future of Kentucky basketball intertwined in another record-setting Big Blue Madness.

With former stars attending, the current team scrimmaging and potential future players watching from the stands, Kentucky again upped the ante with a grandiose event that matched the program's self-stated status.

"We don't just play college basketball," coach John Calipari said in a 10-minute speech. "We are college basketball."

The effects for the show cost more than $400,000, a UK spokesman said, and Kentucky seemingly made use of every dollar with high-quality lights, a rotating video board suspended over midcourt and an interactive light show that synced fans' camera phones to UK's pulsing introductory video.

"This is an incredible night to celebrate the things that make our program great," Calipari said, eight national championship trophies adorning the front edge of his podium.

Fans got to see the team that will chase a ninth trophy introduced for the first time.

Kentucky players came up from underneath the stage, emerging in warmups with blinking lights lining the sides and outlining the numbers. Returning players were introduced first, followed by the nine freshmen, culminating in guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison announced -- naturally -- together.

The players then split up into teams, with five freshmen on the blue team and returning players (plus freshman point guard Dominique Hawkins) on the white team to start, for a brief scrimmage. (The blue team won 65-49).

The new season had (somewhat) officially started with the first public practice.

"Last year, we learned some very important lessons," Calipari said. "We were humbled. I was humbled. Tonight, we put into action what we learned as we strengthen our program and take the first step on a new journey."

Even in a relatively relaxed scrimmage, Kentucky showed the talent that earned it a No. 1 ranking in the preseason coaches' poll. Freshman Julius Randle used a behind-the-back dribble to beat his man while leading the break and bulldozed his way to multiple baskets; freshman Marcus Lee skied for a few blocks; the Harrisons showed the explosiveness that has Calipari raving about his backcourt.

"The competition will be fierce, the road will be difficult," Calipari said. "Every team we play will be more experienced than us. But if we become one unit, play with one heartbeat and a love for one another, we will be unbreakable."

Some of those watching this team play could be in the same spot next year.

Multiple top recruits -- including 2014 prospects James Blackmon, Trey Lyles, Karl Towns and Stanley Johnson, and 2016 prospect Harry Giles -- were in attendance.

And although Calipari couldn't directly address them, his speech sounded like he was talking right to them.

"If you want to be developed as an NBA player, if you want to be developed as a person of character, you come here," Calipari said.

To illustrate his point, he pointed to the past.

Calipari cited Anthony Davis, John Wall and Darius Miller -- all of whom were in Lexington for Saturday's preseason NBA game between the New Orleans Pelicans and Washington Wizards and attended Madness -- in his speech as epitomes of Kentucky basketball.

He noted Davis and Wall were No. 1 picks who have served their communities and that Miller both plays in the NBA and earned his degree.

"This is a place where our players prepare not just for a career, but for the rest of their lives," Calipari said.

And, of course, Calipari saluted the crowd, more than 20,000 filling Rupp Arena and countless more watching from home.

"We are borderless," Calipari said. "We are everywhere. No corner is left untouched by the blue mist."

Mitchell dances again
Another annual rite of Big Blue Madness: UK Hoops coach Matthew Mitchell dancing.

This time, he did two in one session.

Mitchell came out in a James Brown costume before ripping off the outer layer to reveal a professor outfit and segueing into a dance to Britney Spears' "Hit Me Baby One More Time."

"It can't get any more stupid than that," Mitchell said as he finished his annual dance routine.


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