The Wildcats have been practicing for a couple weeks now, sure, but Friday night at Rupp Arena was different. Big Blue Madness is now in the books, the 2015-16 season has officially begun, and talking season is almost over.
With a packed house inside an electric Rupp Arena, the 113th edition of the Kentucky Wildcats was introduced to wild cheers from the Wildcat faithful as their names were announced. Each player walked out of a dark tunnel onto a T-shaped stage at one end of the arena, with EJ Floreal and Dominique Hawkins showing off some of their favorite dance moves.
After each player was announced, a video played of hip hop star, and UK fan, Drake, who introduced “the pride of the Wildcat community,” Kentucky head coach John Calipari.
Standing in front of a clear podium with the fans at a fever pitch, Calipari addressed the past, present and future of Kentucky basketball in a speech spanning just over seven minutes in length. The address, which set the scene for the upcoming season, was briefly interrupted as former UK star and current NBA All-Star Anthony Davis walked to his seat and the fans couldn’t control their excitement.
“Hey, Anthony,” Calipari said. “I’m over here giving a speech!”
After paying homage to the greatest tradition in the history of college basketball, Calipari shifted gears to talk about what playing for Kentucky truly means, and what it demands out of the players, calling UK, the “gold standard” in the sport.
“You all know that playing at Kentucky is about being on the biggest of big stages,” he said. “Playing here is like performing at Carnegie Hall. If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.”
The event, which was broadcast in its entirety on national television for the first time in its history, also featured a 90-minute preview show aired on the UK Sports Network, as well as online. Later in the month when the Cats host their annual intrasquad scrimmage, the SEC Network will be back to feed the Big Blue Nation’s insatiable appetite.
“Because of our national following, everything we do is on national television,” Coach Cal said. “From practices to scrimmages and exhibition games, even pro day.”
But on this night, with that national audience hanging on his every word, Calipari again chose to stress his players-first philosophy, saying that his goal, as well as the fans’ goal, is to help the players as they chase their dreams.
“They are the reason we hang those national championship banners,” he said. “They are the individuals we retire jerseys for. They are the reason why thousands of you camp out for a week each year to celebrate them on this night.
“Kentucky encourages players to chase their genius. We want them to explore the outer limits of their talents and abilities, and leave us without regrets.”
Finally, Coach Cal began to transition to the current state and future of the program, as he again warned fans that the 2015-16 season “will be a process.” In talking about his roster, the Hall of Famer said that if they want to bring UK its ninth championship banner, they must “have more fun than any other team in the country, playing together and growing together.”
The Wildcats, who are attempting to replace 85.9 percent of their scoring from a season ago, as well as 77.3 percent of their rebounding, are bringing in the top-ranked recruiting class in the country, headlined by Skal Labissiere, Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe. They also return one of the top point guards in the nation in sophomore Tyler Ulis, as well as senior Alex Poythress and juniors Marcus Lee, Dominique Hawkins, Derek Willis and EJ Floreal.
After a brief layup line to begin the on-court festivities, the team began playing three-on-three and eventually moved to five-on-five. Defense, as one might expect, wasn’t as tight as it will be during the season, but the offense was certainly impressive with a few baby hooks from Labissiere and jumpers from Ulis and Murray, among others.
In regards to the Wildcats’ future, Calipari closed out his speech by echoing the team’s new mantra, asking both his current players and potential future players who wants to be next in the long line of Wildcat greats.
“From Pat Riley, Louie Dampier, Dan Issel and Kenny “Sky” Walker,” he said. “Jamal Mashburn, Tony Delk, Tayshaun Prince and Rajon Rondo. John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, MKG and Anthony Davis. Karl-Anthony Towns, Willie Cauley-Stein.
“Who wants to be next?
“This team wants to be next!
“And hopefully some other people in this building.”