LEXINGTON — Even when Jimmy Dykes was an assistant coach at Kentucky under Eddie Sutton, he was always amazed at the passion UK fans had for Big Blue Madness.
“It was amazing the excitement that would be generated for basketball in mid-October, and now it is at a whole new level with John Calipari at Kentucky,” said Dykes, now an ESPN analyst who was here Friday night working Big Blue Madness. “It’s a month ahead of the first game. I¿know other venues like Bloomington and Chapel Hill have excitement in their buildings as well, but not like this. I don’t say it because I cover the SEC as one of my main leagues, but because it is the truth. No fan base has the overall passion for program like Kentucky fans do and this night proves it.”
Once again Rupp Arena was filled for the festivities that mark the official opening of UK’s basketball season. The Cats start official workouts Saturday, but this night was for Calipari and women’s coach Matthew Mitchell to have one last bit of fun with their teams.
Mitchell set a high fun standard with his introduction when he came out with his best M.C. Hammer impersonation — complete with the Hammer baggy pants. He performed with the UK dance team and continued his Madness tradition of giving the best dance of anyone.
His team isn’t too shabby, either. He has what he feels is his most talented team ever and believes this could be a Final Four season for the women’s team as well — one reason the crowd seemed to enjoy the women even more than usual this year.
And like Calipari, Mitchell also had several high profile recruits at Madness. He even got a chance to be on ESPN when Calipari’s team took the floor to promote his program.
The fans couldn’t wait, though, for Calipari’s Cats to hit the floor and five of his players — Archie Goodwin, Kyle Wiltjer, Nerlens Noel, Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress — had some moves of their own.
“If we are in a dance contest, we are winning,” Calipari said.
Maybe. But Kentucky does more than dance to win, and Calipari made sure recruits at Madness knew that. He brought out players from past national championship teams — Kyle Macy, Derek Anderson,¿Jeff Sheppard, Wah Wah Jones, Adrian Smith, Vernon Hatton, Ron Mercer and Cliff Hagan along with former coach Joe Hall — and then had the national title banners lowered so the players could re-raise them as fans applauded. “We are here to celebrate the tradition of this program,” Calipari said.
Kentucky again had a bevvy of big-name recruits at Madness. Calipari has had four straight No. 1 recruiting classes and is well on his way to a fifth straight.
“I don’t think Madness is a big edge in recruiting, but it is about one of 10 things that play into the equation for Kentucky recruiting,” Dykes said. “You can scratch that right off the bat if a potential player wonders how passionate the fan base is. He knows he will be going to play where basketball is important if he picks Kentucky. Just go to one game or Midnight Madness and you see that. So while other schools may have to sell recruits on that point, Calipari doesn’t have to. It’s obvious.
“I love what I am doing, but when you are around a night like this it does make you miss coaching,” Dykes continued. “I just signed a new four-year contract that provides great stability for me and my family, but there still is just not anything quite like Kentucky basketball on a night like this.”
Kentucky freshman Archie Goodwin’s high school coach,¿Kevin Davis, would agree. He made the 9-1/2-hour drive from Arkansas with his son Friday to be at Madness.
“I just think so much of Archie and wanted to be here for him,” Davis said. “But there’s nothing like this anywhere else. It’s unbelievable. Just look at what the women’s coach did out there. The fans here love everything about Kentucky and Archie loves everything about being here. But why wouldn’t you?”