LEXINGTON, Ky. — John Calipari knows what Kentucky fans want to hear, and the Wildcats coach is preaching to the choir with talk of national titles at Big Blue Madness.
Or as Calipari said Friday night, it's time to turn the page from anticipation to preparation.
Calipari cut through the fireworks, lasers and thumping music when he said his challenge to both his team and the fans is: What is next?
"Tonight we begin to write the next chapter," Calipari said as he worked the podium. "Tonight we feel the Kentucky effect in full force as we once again redefine college basketball. ... We see no plateaus. We see no stopping points. Let's persist beyond what it is, and let's try to create what was never before imagined. We do more than move the needle. We are the needle. We are UK."
Calipari finished by pointing to a new banner unfurled from the rafters at Rupp Arena commemorating their 14th Final Four as a symbol of what Kentucky has accomplished and the standard the Wildcats expect from themselves.
"We are still aiming for the mountaintop," Calipari said.
This is the seventh time Big Blue Madness has been held at Rupp, and Kentucky opened the doors at 6 p.m. with fans filling seats quickly. Students in the section behind one basket held up a very large banner reading "KENTUCKY BASKETBALL NEVER STOPS" before the festivities started.
Kentucky kicked it off with a video highlighting the hundreds of students who camped out in tents for tickets to attend Big Blue Madness. As talented freshman Anthony Davis said in the video, "They just want to see us win a championship this year."
He couldn't be more right about that.
This is Calipari's third season at Kentucky, and expectations couldn't be higher after reaching the Final Four last spring for the first time since 1998. That only scratched the Wildcats' itch momentarily. Calipari has senior Darius Miller back with Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb along with another highly recruited class of freshmen led by Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, point guard Marquis Teague, younger brother of Jeff Teague of the Atlanta Hawks, and Davis.
That's why a few hundred people camped out for the chance to get tickets to Big Blue Madness. Calipari noted they weren't allowed to line up at Memorial Hall, so they set up across the street.
"Have I told you people you're crazy?" Calipari said.
Anticipation inside Rupp built by the minute with thumping music and flashing lights. First the women's team came out and scrimmaged. Then there was the free T-shirts, cheerleaders and dancers and it just felt like filler for Calipari and his latest freshmen-laden team.
With the NBA lockout, Kentucky had plenty of talented former Wildcats on hand for this party including DeMarcus Cousins, Tayshaun Prince, DeAndre Liggins, Brandon Knight, Nazr Mohammed, Jodie Meeks and Rajon Rondo. But John Wall of the Washington Wizards — from Calipari's first recruiting class at Kentucky — got the biggest response.
Finally the Wildcats came down white staircases bookending a large video screen on the stage at one end of Rupp, and the fans stayed on their feet.
Davis' introduction took the volume to a new high followed by Kidd-Gilchrist who somehow got people to be even louder without the added help from the fireworks. Then came Teague. Miller, the Kentucky native from Maysville, came out to the bluegrass song "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow" from the movie "O Brother Where Art Thou."
Then came Calipari who referenced Rupp's Runts and the Fab Five in recounting Kentucky's history in setting up the next goal.
Then the Wildcats took the court for a quick scrimmage featuring some nice dunks from Davis and plenty of 3s from Miller. At the end, Calipari thanked the fans before handing the microphone to Miller, who thanked fans for supporting him through thick and thin in his career.
"It's amazing to have this many fans at a moonlight scrimmage like this. I know I appreciate it," Miller said.
Calipari and his team got a very nice warmup act from the women. Rupp went dark with coach Matthew Mitchell on stage dancing to Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" complete with a sequined glove in a performance that brought the crowd to its feet in time to welcome the men.
"That was a little nervewracking," Mitchell said.