Kentucky head coach John Calipari is known for his ability to mold young basketball players into pros in just a short period of time. But his greatest skill may be his unparalleled salesmanship and showmanship when the lights are brightest.
Big Blue Madness was just that kind of event, and Calipari was in full form Friday night at Rupp Arena.
“This is an incredible night to celebrate the things that make our program great, that make the Commonwealth of Kentucky’s basketball program the best in the country,” Calipari said during his annual state of the program address.
Freshman forward Julius Randle attacks the basket during the Big Blue Madensss scrimmage. (AllWildcats.com Photo by Jeff Drummond)
The UK boss had a sold-out crowd of 23,000-plus hanging on his every word, but it was mainly directed to a group of about a dozen distinguished guests sitting about 30 feet to his right.
“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 in a not-so-subtle statement to a large group of recruits visiting for Big Blue Madness.
With the spotlight beaming down on his own personal stage surrounded by Kentucky’s eight national championship trophies, there was no better way for Calipari to demand the attention from the high school stars in attendance.
While they are still considered to be at top of the college basketball landscape, the Wildcats took a blow to their ego last season when they failed to reach the NCAA Tournament and were defeated by Robert Morris in the first round of the NIT. But the loss may have been the first step toward greatness this season.
“Last year, we learned some very important lessons. We were humbled. I was humbled,” Calipari said. “Tonight, we put into action what we learned as we strengthen our program and take the first step on a new journey.”
That journey began with a one-of-a-kind event totaling over $400,000 in effects for the use of lights, fireworks, and a rotating video screen suspended over center court. The elaborate show continued when the players appeared through hydraulic lifts in the floor as they were introduced to the fans for the first time.
The event also brought some former Cats back to Lexington. Calipari drew attention to John Wall, Anthony Davis and Darius Miller during his speech, and each received a rousing ovation from the Big Blue faithful. The players are in town for Saturday’s NBA exhibition game between Wall’s Washington Wizards and Davis and Miller’s New Orleans Pelicans.
The night was capped with a brief scrimmage by the 2013-14 Cats, who showed why many national analysts consider them the No. 1 team entering the season. The Blue team, led primarily by freshmen Andrew and Aaron Harrison, James Young, Julius Randle and Dakari Johnson, defeated the more veteran White team 65-49. Randle, a 6-foot-9, 250-pound power forward, led all scorers with 14 points and displayed the versatile skills that had him voted the SEC’s preseason Player of the Year.
Up next for the Cats: the Blue-White Scrimmage on Oct. 29 at Rupp Arena. UK opnes the regular season on Nov. 8 against UNC Asheville.