LEXINGTON — It’s been a decade since John Calipari made his first appearance at Big Blue Madness and the Kentucky coach looked ahead to his second decade Friday night.
Prior to his annual speech to Big Blue Nation, clips of Calipari’s first press conference and highlights from his first nine seasons were shown on the video board.
“It seems like just yesterday I was walking out in front of the greatest fan base in the country,” Calipari said. “I’ll admit, I was a little nervous because I knew the responsibility I was undertaking to sit in this seat and lead the greatest tradition in the history of college basketball. This stage, this court, this is the greatest of them all.”
For the 10th time under Calipari, the Wildcats officially ushered in a new season with the annual Big Blue Madness introducing the men’s and women’s basketball teams to thousands of fans. Many of those in attendance filled the street and lot surrounding Memorial Coliseum, known as “Tent City” earlier this month to score tickets for the yearly event.
In his speech, Calipari paid tribute to former players and coaches, including Rick Pitino.
“To think about the coaches who have been in this seat – Adolph Rupp, coach Hall, Rick Pitino and Tubby Smith and to think about the players who have put on that uniform – Dan Issel and Kenny Walker, Jack Givens and Jamal Mashburn, Cotton Nash, Kyle Macy, Pat Riley and so on – it’s heavy stuff,” he said. “I knew that in 2009 just as I know now. This is the greatest job in the country.”
Former Kentucky players Kenny Walker and Isaac Humphries were present, including retired and former Kentucky coach Joe B. Hall who entertained the crowd prior to walking the “Blue Carpet.” Longtime Athletics Director Cliff Hagan also made an appearance.
Kentucky returns three core players from last year’s squad that finished 26-11 and lost to Kansas State in the Sweet Sixteen. Quade Green, PJ Washington and Nick Richards, all of who received valuable playing time last season, are back for their second season.
“When I look at this team and I look at this group, it makes me want to keep going. I wake up every day excited to coach my team,” he said. “I may look one age, but I can tell you that these guys make me feel like I’m 30 again. Having the opportunity to coach Brad and seeing him grow as a player and a man is something I’ll never forget.
“I’m excited about this team because every one of the guys has goals and aspirations beyond Kentucky. They’re driven and wired to earn their opportunity and they all have a burning desire to win and be the best team in the country.”
Members of the school’s 1948, 1949 and 1951 national championship teams, including Guy Strong were introduced to the crowd.
“The great Adolph Rupp began this tradition and tonight we’re going to celebrate 1948, 1949 and 1951,” Calipari said. “The first three banners that started it all.”
The Wildcats held a scrimmage and a 3-point shooting contest won by Immanuel Quickley who edged classmate Tyler Herro 22-21 for the title. Quickley won the three-point shooting contest at the McDonald’s All-American game last summer. PJ Washington won the dunk contest, defeating teammates Keldon Johnson and Tyler Herro in an online hashtag poll.
The Kentucky women’s basketball team also met the fan base for the first time and coach Matthew Mitchell entertained the crowd with an animated dance with the Kentucky Dance team. Sporting a UK cap and a goatee, Mitchell gave a thumbs ups to the crowd following the segment.
“We have the best fans in the world here tonight,” Mitchell said. “We’re so excited to start another basketball season.”
The Wildcats finished 15-17 last season but return seniors Maci Morris, Taylor Murray, and LaShae Halsel.