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John Calipari lays it on at Big Blue Madness, says playing for Kentucky ‘isn’t for everyone’


Kentucky coach John Calipari stood on a stage (middle) as his image was projected on a giant video screen above midcourt at Big Blue Madness on Friday. | Photo by James Pennington

Kentucky coach John Calipari stood on a stage (middle) as his image was projected on a giant video screen above midcourt at Big Blue Madness on Friday. | Photo by James Pennington

 

John Calipari laid it on thick during what amounted to a campaign speech at Big Blue Madness on Friday night: Kentucky basketball isn’t for everyone. The implication was that last year’s team wasn’t up to the task, but this year’s is.
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Calipari has given State of the Union-like addresses in three of his five Big Blue Madnesses so far as the Kentucky coach, and it just so happens that it’s been every other year. He took the stage at Rupp Arena on Friday, and his message was clear, piped to him on clear, glass teleprompters.

 

“As I’ve told our players many times, our program isn’t for everybody,” he said, pausing for applause what seemed like every two sentences. “Take a look around. This is it. Every night we play, 24,000 pack the house that Rupp built. You can feel the sound in your soul. To play here, they have to want this.”

 

The setting was rich. A giant, rotating video board hung over the UK logo at midcourt. A giant stage, about 50′ by 50′, stood behind one basket, and the men’s players were introduced from elevators under the stage through smoke and lights with lit-up warm-up sweatsuits over their scrimmage jerseys. The music was loud, and the applause was louder.

 

Calipari’s opening line: “How about this?”

 

Before Calipari, Matthew Mitchell put on a show. If you are a Kentucky athletics devotee, this does not surprise you. He kicked off the whole show with his dance routine. Rupp Arena went dark, and the P.A. announcer introduced not Matthew Mitchell, but “The Godfather of Soul.” He was dressed as James Brown, and he came out dancing around in a blue sweatsuit and a wig of flowing black hair.

 

After a bit of that, he tore away the sweatsuit and donned khakis, a blue blazer and horn-rimmed glasses. A schoolboy look, he joined three female dancers in gender-appropriate analogous costumes and danced to an unlikely tune: Britney Spears’ “Baby One More Time.” The predominantly James Brown routine is now fourth in a growing legend of Mitchell acts at Madness:

 

2010: “Teach Me How to Dougie”

2011: “Billie Jean”

2012: “U Can’t Touch This”

2013: James Brown/Britney Spears

 

With about two minutes left in the women’s scrimmage, a player scored a basket and the lights went out. When they came back up, Samarie Walker was standing at midcourt. She led the team in a dance and stomp routine, and off the women’s team went.

 

After Calipari’s speech, the men’s team scrimmaged for 20 minutes of running-clock time. The scrimmage, as it often is at Big Blue Madness, was purely for show. The point is not to play well; the point is to do some neat things for the fans and make sure nobody gets hurt. Still, one thing in particular was made abundantly clear.

 

Julius Randle—it almost seems like he doesn’t belong, like he needs to pick on kids his own size. He’s listed at 6-9 and 250 pounds. Without directly comparing him to LeBron James, he seemed to at least provide an analogy. As James is to the NBA, Randle may be to college, at least in terms of how simultaneously imposing and smooth he is.

 

All of the other lessons one could have taken away from Friday’s scrimmage in a vacuum were ones already well spread throughout the public record to this point: This team will throw lots of lob dunks, and Marcus Lee will catch many of them; beyond Randle, James Young may be the team’s best player, and he may be the best shooter, too; and for the third year in a row, Kentucky will block a lot of shots, with Lee, Willie-Cauley Stein and Dakari Johnson in the paint.

 

But Friday’s event was best analyzed in a vacuum, not looking too much into long-term lessons and instead appreciating the evening for what it was: an assault on all five senses—you could taste, feel and smell the smoke of the fireworks, almost uncomfortably so at one point—with the primary goal, one that it surely and easily exceeded, to impress both the fans who camped out for tickets and the recruits who flew in eager to be wooed.


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