The rationale for Big Blue Madness arguably never hit home as deeply as it did Friday night. The celebration of college basketball’s return … indeed!
Yes, the dawn of another season brought Kentucky fans together to rejoice in past glories and exult in the expectation of more to come. Since the beginning of Madness in the early 1980s, this annual rite could be taken for granted.
But Madness 2021 seemed to mark the return of much more than dribbling, shooting and rebounding. This was a rebirth of a palpable pride and unity of purpose interrupted last year by the coronavirus pandemic. The fear of crowds packed into Rupp Arena meant no Madness, which UK Coach John Calipari labeled “sacrilegious” during the Pro Day telecast last Sunday.
It meant announced attendance of barely 3,000 for home games last season when Kentucky, coincidentally or not, lost more games than it won (5-6) for the first time since 1927.
So, as Calipari moved to the Madness podium to give his semi-annual State of the Program address, he seemed moved by the sight of thousands of fans. Truth be told, it was not a capacity crowd, but close enough for the coach to begin by saying, “Wow! Can I just say, boy, have I missed that roar.”
And in a reversal from the customary taking of bows by the UK team, Calipari paid tribute to the fans.
“We remind everyone what separates Kentucky from everyone else,” he said. “It’s you, the fans. Tonight, we celebrate you. And as I stand before you tonight, I am reminded how much we missed your energy you provide. . . . You create an environment unlike any other for our guys to perform. And you support them every step of the way on the journey.”
Calipari concluded by asking the fans to bring an enhanced spirit — perhaps calling upon the under-used enthusiasm of last season — to 2021-22.
“I ask you tonight, take it to a new level,” he said. “We have missed you last year. And we look forward to taking the court again in front of you.
“Before I go, because it’s been so long, let me hear that unmistakable chant that everyone knows and our opponents fear. So, these young men know what it feels like to hear the BBN roar.”
The familiar Go-Big-Blue chant filled Rupp Arena.
Point guard designate Sahvir Wheeler downplayed the injury he appeared to sustain near the end of UK’s Pro Day practice on Monday. He had to be helped off the court while not putting weight on his left ankle.
Wheeler credited UK’s medical staff and being in the training room “constantly” for a quick recovery.
“I feel great right now,” he said. “If the national championship was tomorrow, I’d be playing.”
The late Terrence Clarke, who died in a car accident last spring, was remembered. Family members attended Madness. Calipari hugged the former UK player’s grandmother.
The team presented the family with a pair of high-top shoes, one bearing the likeness of Clarke and the other his No. 5.
Name, Image, Likeness and more than 1,700 players entering the transfer portal represent radical change in college basketball.
“The ground is shifting beneath our feet,” Calipari told the Madness audience. “And we have to be nimble and flexible. But the vision of this program has not changed: Putting players first, helping them reach their dreams remains our mission. When they succeed, we all succeed.”
UK women’s coach Kyra Elzy had a tough Madness act to follow. Her predecessor, Matthew Mitchell, made dancing his signature contribution to the event.
When asked beforehand if she would flash dance moves when introduced, she said, “That was Coach’s legacy. Coach Mitchell was the life of the party. It came with him. It’s going to leave with him.”
Elzy made a memorable, if not earthbound, entrance. She rappelled from the rafters near the Rupp Arena ceiling to the court.
It was not her first time rappelling.
“Like anything else, you’ve got to practice,” she said. “So, I practiced all week long.”
Former UK star Jodie Meeks attended Madness. He said he was enjoying retirement.
That process includes raising his twin daughters, Mila and Gia. They are 18 months old, he said.
Meeks, 34, also said he’s playing a lot of golf.
His handicap? “7.9,” he said before adding, “I’m trying to get it down even further.”
Meeks lives in Atlanta, which is where he grew up.
Meeks had not yet watched the current team practice. He said he hoped to do so Saturday. “Before the big game, the Georgia game,” he said.
That prompted a question: would he root for Kentucky or the team from his native state, No. 1 Georgia, in Saturday’s football game?
“Oh, I root for Kentucky, man,” he said. “I’m not a Bulldog fan. Go Big Blue. Always.”
She’s my ‘why’
Davion Mintz wore a chain around his neck that held a locket. In the locket was a picture of his grandmother, Rosalee Smith, who he said died two years ago.
“She’s the root of our family . . . ,” he said. “Much love to her. She’s my ‘why.’”
When asked how useful Big Blue Madness was as a gauge of basketball ability, Meeks said, “Ah, I don’t think it’s a big gauge. I think the guys are just out there having fun. It’s like an all-star game.
“If you play well, you play well. But I think they’re just probably going out there and enjoying it.”
As if on cue, the scrimmage that concluded Madness had 17 dunks, seven three-pointers, two layups and no defense.
CJ Fredrick won the three-point shooting contest. He beat TyTy Washington in the finals.
Jacob Toppin won the dunk contest. The loudest crowd reaction came on two dunks by Kareem Watkins, who is listed at 5-foot-8.
Watkins, who won the dunk contest at the Fans First Fan Fest last month, dunked after bouncing the ball off the court and catching it in the air. A second dunk came after catching a ball he first threw off the backboard.
Important upcoming UK dates
Oct. 22: Blue-White Scrimmage (7 p.m., SEC Network)
Oct. 29: Exhibition vs. Kentucky Wesleyan (7 p.m., SEC Network)
Nov. 5: Exhibition vs. Miles College (7 p.m., SEC Network)