We made it.
In less than 24 hours, a new crop of Wildcats will take the floor for the first time, giving fans their first glimpse of the squad that will defend the school’s eighth National Championship. With the new banner looking on proudly from the rafters, stars will be born on a stage dramatic enough for a reality TV talent show. What was once a simple deadline has morphed into a spectacle, with fog machines, spotlights, fireworks and enough hype to fuel a 747. True to the fan base it represents, Midnight Madness has always been a huge deal at Kentucky. Joe B. Hall started the tradition back in 1982, holding a free practice at midnight for 8,500 fans at Memorial Coliseum. Dubbed the “Midnight Special,” the event grew over the years, to the point that during Rick Pitino’s first practice as coach, fans were reportedly caught sneaking in the windows to get in. Pitino added to the tradition by giving each season’s Madness a “theme.” In 1994, he rode in on a Harley-Davidson to “Born to be Wild” (oh, if we had only known then what we do now…); in 1995, Walter McCarty and Tony Delk swung down from the rafters as “Catman” and Robin; in 1998, Tubby celebrated his second season as coach by sporting a Don King wig for “The Main Event”; and in what be one of my favorite Madness moments, Bill Keightley jumped out of a giant birthday cake in 2002 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Kentucky basketball. In 2005, Madness moved to Rupp while Memorial Coliseum was being renovated, and it has stayed there ever since.
Midnight Madness grew to match its new surroundings. Introducing Billy G was a spectacle, I think. (I’ve pretty much blocked it from my memory.) Whereas Madness had always been a fun and sometimes silly kickoff to the season, the celebration took on a slightly more serious tone when Cal took over. Nursing a wounded Big Blue Nation, Cal soothed us with a lengthy speech detailing his goals for not just the season, but his time at Kentucky. You could tell that Cal had been writing the speech in his head for years. He blended the past seamlessly into the future, hitting on all the highlights of the program’s storied history and shooting our hopes skyward with talk of celebrations and banquets, diplomas and banners, rings and parades. The speech was the inauguration of the role he was made for, something which becomes more apparent with each win, top recruit, and consequent NBA draft pick that comes along. Cal’s Madnesses aren’t only a celebration of the past, they’re a commercial for the future. It’s not a coincidence that the event has taken on a glossier, more professional look since Cal took over; from the glitzy graphics, the music, the fireworks, and the dancing, this is now a players-first program. Three years, fifteen draft picks, two Final Fours and a National Championship later, the proof is in the pudding.
Big Blue Madness isn’t just a party; it’s a holiday. Today, I encourage you to celebrate it as such, donning your favorite UK shirt, clapping along to the fight song in your head, doing the John Wall dance on your way into work, and throwing a three goggle at everyone you meet. The wait is finally over. Basketball season has begun.
Lots to do, so let’s get to the news and views, presented by mini-Bill Keightleys jumping out of cakes!
Another Thursday, another new Wildcat. James Young, the fifth best player in the 2013 class, finally revealed the worst kept secret ever Thursday afternoon when he gave his verbal commitment to play for Kentucky. Young, a 6’6”, 210 lbs. two guard from Michigan, told ESPNU’s Recruiting Nation that Kentucky has always been his dream school and that once he visited, he “just fell in love with the place.” He said that he was open to other schools at the beginning of his recruitment, but once Kentucky started showing interest, “I knew I wanted to be there.” Need another reason to love him? Young’s old AAU coach says that he’s been wearing a Kentucky t-shirt ever since last season, and that if he didn’t have it on, his grandmother did.
Young already has fans in his newest teammates, the Harrison Twins. Andrew told the Courier-Journal Thursday that “James is one of the best scorers in the country. Having him and Aaron alongside me is a point guard’s dream.” James has spoken to the Twins over the last few days and says one of the reasons he chose Kentucky was the opportunity to play with them. Young is the fourth member of what is shaping up to be an absolutely epic 2013 class. The next immediate target is Marcus Lee, who will be in the house Friday night. While Lee’s decision will be big, Julius Randle’s will be huge, as he would be the fourth top five player in the class to choose the Cats. (Sit and think about that for a minute. Take an appreciative sip of your beer while you’re at it.) Something tells me this isn’t the last ESPNU Recruiting Nation Special we’ll see for a while. And even though that show sucks and I couldn’t care less about Notre Dame football recruiting, I’m just fine with that.
Let’s take a second and admire just what is happening here. Before his current team has even started practice, Cal has put together one of the best recruiting classes in history, and he’s just getting started. Three of the top five players in the country with even more talent on deck? Forget about it! Remember the days when we were signing middle schoolers and losing out on recruits to second and third tier teams? Cal has signed thirteen top ten recruits over the past four years. THIRTEEN. The only other schools with multiple top ten recruits during that period? Florida and UCLA, with two a piece. That’s just absurd. TGFC (Thank God for Cal).
James Young (committed)
Derek Willis (committed)
Andrew Harrison (committed)
Aaron Harrison (committed)
Thursday was also Media Day, which on any other day would be the top news story, but in the Cal Era, this is how we roll. Cal addressed the media with just as much, if not more, swagger than usual. The highlights:
– Before he was shushed by DeWayne Peevy, Cal addressed the uncertainty surrounding Nerlens Noels’ eligibility: “Nerlens will practice, and if we played tomorrow, he would play.” When he does play, he may play alongside Willie Cauley-Stein and Kyle Wiltjer in a zone, with Nerlens and Willie on the wings. Good lord. I already feel bad for the Long Island Universities and LaFayettes of the world.
– Cal said that initially, he was not interested in the ESPN All-Access special: “They approached us, and we said no for about a month. We didn’t want to do it. Do we really need more exposure? … I said I don’t think we need help. I think we’re okay.” He later changed his mind because he thought it would be “good for his guys,” but really, in the end, he said it would be fun to piss people off, too: “Everybody’s going to be mad. I know. Did I do it just because of that to aggravate people? Might have.” That’s so Cal.
– When asked about his team, Cal was willing to dole out comparisons for some players, but not others. He called Archie Goodwin a player in the mold of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and DeAndre Liggins. Ryan Harrow? “He can score the ball, skilled, like Brandon (Knight) was, and he’s becoming a good layup shooter.” But don’t you dare compare Nerlens Noel to Anthony Davis. Just yet. In fact, Cal said Noel is “way more bouncy and long” than Anthony. Not sure about the bouncy part, but longer than Anthony Davis?! Good lord.
– When asked who the leader of this team is, Cal struggled with a response, settling on Archie Goodwin before saying this was one of the quietest teams he’s had. Alex Poythress’ response? “We’re just quiet when Cal’s around.”
The players got their turn with the media, too, and as expected, they were a funny bunch. Archie Goodwin may have had the line of the day when asked about the ESPN All-Access show: “If (Cal) says it’s good for us, then it is. It’s Coach Cal, it’s a monarchy.”
– The new guys are still getting used to the fishbowl lifestyle at Kentucky. Nerlens Noel says he gets ten to fifteen autograph requests outside the Lodge PER DAY. Sam Malone, a grizzled old vet, said that the old guys have enjoyed watching the newbies adjust to their newfound fame: “Just the look on some of their faces when the step on campus…they’re definitely shocked by it.” Julius Mays showed the wisdom of a veteran transfer with this advice to his teammates: “I always tell them to enjoy it and embrace the moment, because everybody is not living how we’re living and everybody doesn’t get to be a part of something like this…you just made someone’s day. So just smile.” I already love this kid.
– Contrary to earlier reports that he was going to shave it off after Big Blue Madness, Ryan Harrow says he is going to keep his new flat top. What does Nerlens think of it? “I don’t think it’s flyer than mine.”
More Madness! Don’t forget, the Women’s Volleyball team and their tiny, supportive shorts will play Mississippi State before the main event at 5 p.m. One guy who will be paying particularly close attention? Marcus Lee, who told USA Today’s Jason Jordan that the volleyball game is already a highlight of his visit: “[I’m excited about] Seeing how crazy Big Blue Nation gets. And I’m also looking forward to seeing the volleyball game. I play volleyball too at my school so I’m interested in that.”
Oddly, John Calipari will also be presented with two ladders from the official NCAA Tournament ladder company during the festivities. I got nothing.
Hey! There’s a football game on Saturday. Unfortunately, the injury bug continues to take its toll. Safeties Mikie Benton, Ashely Lowery, and Martavius Neloms will not travel to Arkansas due to injuries. Freshmen Zack and Daron Blaylock and Cody Quinn will start in their place. Of the 30 defensive players traveling to Fayetteville, 23 of them are freshmen and sophomores. That is staggering. #WeAreYoung
Finally, if you’re in the Nashville area and want to watch Big Blue Madness with La Familia, join me and Aaron Flener at the Tin Roof Green Room (right next to the Tin Roof on Demonbreun), where they’re hosting a huge Big Blue Madness watch party. Admission is free, with all TV’s tuned into the Madness (with sound!) and plenty of specials. How can you say no?
We’ve got a big day coming up. See you soon.