LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) - 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
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
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
"Folks, I hope you're enjoying this, but do you see how far we
have to go?" Calipari said. "All right, just so everybody
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
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
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."
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.