LEXINGTON (AP) — John Calipari served as the opening act for Kentucky’s banner recruiting class, and the veteran coach knew exactly what to say.
Speaking at Big Blue Madness on Friday night, Calipari delighted the capacity crowd at Rupp Arena with a rousing talk more reminiscent of a campaign stop than a basketball practice.
“The competition will be fierce, the road will be difficult,” he said. “Every team we play will be more experienced than us. But if we become one unit, play with one heartbeat and a love for each another, we will be unbreakable.
“With these players, these fans, and this coaching staff, we will build on the greatest tradition in the history of college basketball.”
The optimistic tone for Calipari comes in the wake of last season’s disaster, when the Wildcats failed to make it to the NCAA tournament and lost to Robert Morris in the first round of the NIT.
But the expectations remain high in Lexington, thanks to a heralded group of recruits that will comprise a good portion of Calipari’s regular rotation this year. The seven-man class features forward Julius Randle, considered a preseason candidate for national player of the year and a possible No. 1 draft pick in the 2014 NBA draft.
“Our biggest opponent: ourselves,” Calipari said. “At Kentucky, we are competing against ourselves every day. We can’t let the strain and spotlight of this program affect you. We are the place to help you achieve your dreams.
“We don’t just play college basketball, we are college basketball. As you know, we are everyone’s Super Bowl.”
Calipari said playing for Kentucky isn’t for everyone, and he’s confident this year’s team is up to the challenge.
The touted recruiting class also includes identical-twin guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison, and swingman James Young.
After Calipari’s talk, the Wildcats played a running-clock, 20-minute scrimmage that was mostly a showboating display of dunks and 3-pointers.
Kentucky’s Big Blue Madness — an annual event that marks the beginning of the basketball season — attracted several high-profile recruits that could be a part of the event in the future. With Washington and New Orleans playing a preseason game at Rupp on Saturday, a handful of NBA players also were in the crowd.
Washington point guard John Wall and Anthony Davis, Darius Miller and Tyreke Evans of the Pelicans all were in attendance. Wall, Davis and Miller played for Calipari at Kentucky, and Evans was one of Calipari’s players at Memphis.
Kentucky women’s coach Matthew Mitchell put on a show before Calipari’s appearance. He was introduced as “The Godfather of Soul,” and danced around as James Brown, complete with a wig and sweatsuit.
He then tore the wig and costume away and did a routine to the tune of Britney Spears’ “Baby One More Time.”
It was another in a long line of memorable displays for Mitchell at Big Blue Madness. In years past, he danced to MC Hammer, Michael Jackson and “Teach Me How to Dougie” at the event.
Mitchell’s Wildcats lost in the Elite Eight last season for the third time in four years. SEC coaches voted the Wildcats to finish second in the league behind Tennessee.