With the start of one of the most anticipated seasons in Kentucky basketball history just weeks away, three Wildcats will take some time out of their busy schedules to chat with fans.
On Friday, Andrew Harrison, Jon Hood and Alex Poythress will join Cat Scratches and CoachCal.com for a special interactive live blog. Beginning at 11:15 a.m. ET, Harrison, Hood and Poythress will take comments and questions from fans in a real-time format on UK's live blog application.
We expect a large audience for the live chat, so we ask that you be patient if your comment or question is not immediately approved by the moderator. The chat will last for approximately 30 minutes and we will try to get to as many fans as possible.
Harrison is a freshman and a preseason candidate for the Bob Cousy Award, given annually to the nation's top point guard. Hood is one of two seniors on UK's 2013-14 roster and has played for John Calipari since his arrival in 2009. Poythress, a sophomore, returns to Kentucky after bypassing the NBA Draft. He averaged 11.2 points and 6.0 rebounds and was a Freshman All-Southeastern Conference performer last season.
Kentucky junior guard Tod Lanter. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Throughout the 2013-14 season, UKathletics.com and CoachCal.com will be here to serve as your primary source for Kentucky basketball coverage. From feature stories to game coverage, video and more, we pride ourselves on being your one-stop shop for all things UK basketball. However, nobody can paint the picture quite like the people who create the artwork. Throughout the 2013-14 year, the players who make the stories will share in writing a season-long blog to share with the Big Blue Nation their experiences, their thoughts and how the year develops in their own eyes. This week Tod Lanter shares his thoughts about Big Blue Madness and bonding with his teammates with the Big Blue Nation. By Tod Lanter (Follow on Twitter)
What's going on, Big Blue Nation? Glad to get this opportunity to talk to you.
Since Big Blue Madness is fresh in everyone's mind, let's start with that. Although I was on the team last year, this was my first Big Blue Madness experience as a part of the team (more on that later). Growing up here, I had been to a couple as a fan, so it was obviously a special experience for me to actually be a part of it.
The build-up for it was pretty crazy. As all of you know, a lot of people were talking about what dances we were going to do, but we didn't know who was going to do what until we took the stage. The guys were joking around all week saying, "I should do this," but really they were just trying to see what everybody's reaction was to make sure it was good. The exception was Jarrod because he was the first guy who was going to be introduced and we wanted the lead person to do something different and get things started off right.
Honestly, we had no clue what to expect. The first time we saw the setup was Thursday night during our walkthrough. That was actually the first time we found out about those warm-ups with the lights on them. I was the first one to see them because my locker is at that first corner. I turned around and I was like, "Look at these sweat suits. Are those lights?" Right after that, one of the guys from our marketing department walked in and said, "Make sure your battery packs are working." He told us they would control the lighting and they would light up as we were coming up the lift and on to the stage. It was kind of relieving to us to wear those and see the setup because we didn't have to do much to make the whole thing exciting. (A big shout-out to the people in the marketing department for that because it was really exciting and made things easier for us.)
Anyway, when the night actually came, I thought I would be a lot more nervous then I was. I remember Jarrod telling us how he was still nervous even though he'd been through it three years already. He was the first to go, so it was understandable, but as I was standing there, I was expecting my hands to start sweating but it never happened. Julius was really nervous, but it was weird for me. I felt more excited than nervous when it came time to take the stage, and I'm glad I did. Otherwise, I don't know that I would have danced.
I still didn't know if I was going to dance until I went up the lift and finally got up there. Once I did, I decided to go with it. You know how they say when you're young, if they can't see you then they think you can't see them? That's how I felt. I couldn't see anybody's face because it was so dark out there. At that point, I was like, "I'm going to do it." My dance was alright, but I've got to give Jarrod and Sam some credit. I didn't get to see Jarrod's live since I was the fifth one up the lift, but Sam's was pretty awesome.
Looking back, it all happened so fast for me. We did all that preparation for it and were excited about it all week, but before I knew it we were in the locker room taking a picture with John Wall and Anthony Davis and it was all over. I guess that's because we were having fun. Hearing my name called and rising up to see all those cheering faces is something I dreamed about for a long time. It was something I'll never forget.
It was also extra special for me because of my dad. He was actually part of the first Big Blue Madness here, when they held it in Memorial. I obviously wasn't there for that one, but he said they just announced the players and they ran out onto the floor. Now it's evolved into this spectacle where we've got light-up warm-ups with a rising floor and smoke coming out of everything. It's crazy.
It's exciting for him to see me get to go through this because he told me when I was growing up and working in the gym late at night that nothing comes easy without hard work. He said, "If I could take my experiences and hand them over to you, I'd do it, but that work that gets you there is what makes it so sweet." The fact that I'm getting to experience it and do it on a whole 'nother level than he ever did with this team is just an unbelievable gift.
One of the things I'm really enjoying about this year is just knowing what to do and what to expect. At this point last year, my head was kind of spinning. I was cleared to play the day of Madness last year, and my first practice was that next morning with another practice in the afternoon. Two days earlier I wasn't even a part of the team and all of a sudden I'm in two-a-days and eating lunch at Coach Cal's house that afternoon during our break.
I can remember my first practice last year. I specifically remember Coach calling "Two Circle" and thinking, I have no idea what that is. I think it was JP who told him, "Coach he doesn't know that play. He wasn't there for that play." I'm usually pretty good at remembering things by doing them, but I'd only done them a few days last year by the time I was playing in the Blue-White Scrimmage. I was sitting in the locker room before the scrimmage trying to remember where the ball went for certain plays and where I was supposed to screen. I was over-thinking everything.
This year I'm a lot more comfortable. I know the plays better than just about anybody outside of Hoody, Jarrod, Alex and Willie because I was in there last year and played just about every position at some point in practice. I'm definitely looking forward to getting out there this year for the Blue-White Scrimmage and feeling comfortable with how to execute everything we've been working on.
One of my favorite things about this team is just how close we all are. Everybody got here in the middle of the summer and we went to a movie like six hours after meeting everyone for the first time. It was just like a random group of strangers at the time who had just met, but we all felt so comfortable with each other. And it doesn't matter who it is or what our role is on the team, we're all friends. Like the other day, Brian, Julius, Andrew and I all went out and ate together. We don't have a certain group of teammates that just hang out. We've literally done all kinds of different stuff with different kinds of people, and I think that's important.
The better relationships you build with your teammates off the court, the more you're going to be able to trust them on the court and mesh well with each other. The more that we can build those types of relationships, the more we can trust each other. Cal always says he wants to be able to hand the reins over to the team at some point during the season and run ourselves. A team that he trusts enough to be able to do that needs to start with trusting in ourselves, so that bonding stuff is important.
Things like going to the hockey and volleyball games together, going bowling and out to eat, it matters. We're having fun together. I know Marcus told you guys about the hockey game a few weeks back when we dropped the puck at center ice. Yes, I did almost fall. The first thing they told me was not to fall, but you don't realize how slick it is until you start sliding. I played it off with a move to act like I had it under control. (On a side note, I want to encourage everyone to go support them on Fridays at midnight. They're a lot of fun to watch).
It's things like that remind me we're just a bunch of kids getting to do something really special here. Before I got here last year, I didn't realize that all these guys I grew up looking up to and idolizing are kids just like me. Now that I get to be a part of this, I realize that we're all just a bunch of college-aged kids who enjoy the same things like everyone else. I strive to be a good influence for people who look up to me like I did to those players back then. I'm grateful for the opportunity
Alright, I've got to get out of here. I enjoyed sharing some thoughts with everyone. You stay classy, BBN.
From Matthew Mitchell's James Brown/Britney Spears impression to an amazing fan-driven light show, the 2013 edition of Big Blue Madness made for another memorable night in Rupp Arena. We'll be updating this post with videos from the evening.
John Calipari delivers his state-of-the-program speech at Big Blue Madness. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Below is a complete transcript of the speech John Calipari delivered at Big Blue Madness on Friday night.
How about this?
This is an incredible night to celebrate the things that make our program great ... that make the Commonwealth of Kentucky's basketball program the best in the country.
You are part of that program, the Big Blue Nation ... The sixth man of Kentucky basketball.
You lined up early ... before there WAS a line ... for a limited number of tickets to a practice ... A PRACTICE ...
Have I told you that you people are crazy?
24,000 strong tonight behind our players, but the Big Blue Nation extends far beyond the hallowed halls of college basketball's greatest arena.
It's a nation that stretches across 120 counties in Kentucky, all 50 states and to every country in the world.
We are borderless. We are everywhere. No corner is left untouched by the blue mist.
Four years ago when we started on this journey together, I shared with you a vision for this program: The gold standard of college athletics.
Two years ago, we talked about the Kentucky Effect, as we re-defined college basketball and more importantly the lives of the players in this program.
Tonight, we build on that legacy ... that tradition.
As I've told our players many times, our program isn't for everybody.
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.
This is the preeminent stage for college basketball. This is the place where nothing is given to you and everything is earned.
You have to be tough, not just physically, but mentally. You have to wake up ready to beat your best time, to practice your hardest each and every day.
Our biggest opponent? Ourselves. 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.
They need to be prepared not just to play against great players, but to play alongside great players. Look at this group we have here today.
You are your brother's keeper. If you want to succeed at Kentucky, you will succeed as a team. You play more for your teammates than yourself. If you want 30 shots a game, this isn't the place for you.
The first two draft picks in the 2012 NBA draft - Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist - were the fourth and fifth-leading shot takers on their team. They played for their team, their family, and not for themselves. That sacrifice became success ...(PAUSE) our eighth national championship.
Our players learn as a family, practice as a family and play as a family so they can win as a family. We are a players-first program. If you want to be developed as an NBA player, if you want to be developed as a person of character, you come here.
I'm proud of what we've accomplished on the court, two Final Fours, a national championship, 17 NBA Draft picks over the last four years, including 13 first-round picks, but I'm just as proud of the guys who have earned degrees.
I'm proud that we have graduated 10 of our last 10 players who have been here at least three years. I'm proud that some of our players have gone to the NBA AND earned a degree, like Darius Miller, who is in the crowd with us tonight. I'm proud that we've had a 3.0 grade-point average the last three years, including a 3.4 GPA last spring. I'm proud that John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins each donated 1 million dollars to charity the second they signed their max deals. Think about that.
We teach more than just basketball here. We teach character on the court and off. This is a place where our players prepare not just for a career, but for the rest of their lives.
This program teaches players about life ... about the next step. We are teaching them to be men of integrity and honor. Men of character on and off the court.
We call it the Success Rate ... and I'm proud of that. Let me make this very clear: A player's success here is not optional.
But you have to want it. You have to want your education. You must have a love of learning. You must put service before self to truly succeed here.
Last year, we learned some very important lessons.
We were humbled. I was humbled.
Tonight, we put into action what we learned as we strengthen our program and take the first step on a new journey.
The competition will be fierce, the road will be difficult. 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 ...
My role, and that of my staff, is to serve the players. Inspire them to reach higher than they thought possible ... To mentor them ... To build exceptional men and respected sons of the Commonwealth ...
... And, most of all, to help them reach their dreams as they help us reach ours.
With these players, these fans, and this coaching staff, we will build on the greatest tradition in the history of college basketball.
Thank you, Big Blue Nation, for the privilege of representing you to the world and for helping us be the standard bearer in college basketball.
John Wall's namesake move helped start the start the trend of dancing at Big Blue Madness in 2009. (UK Athletics)
Big Blue Madness organizers go to great lengths to make sure plans for Kentucky's first open men's and women's basketball practice stay quiet, and rightfully so.
Fans -- though tickets are free -- spend days camped out for tickets to the event and surprise is part of the fun.
In 2013, with Madness anticipation at an all-time high, players are following suit when it comes to the dance moves they'll break out when introduced to the capacity crowd.
"We've all talked about what we want to do and I have everything picked out but it's a surprise," freshman guard Dominique Hawkins said.
Hawkins has had 18 years to think about his big moment. The Richmond, Ky., native grew up hoping he would get a chance to walk -- and dance -- across the Madness stage. On Friday night, he'll get it.
"I know it's going to be wild, the place will be packed and the fans will be going crazy," Hawkins said. "Growing up I wanted to be that person that everybody was screaming about when they come out in Rupp Arena. Now I'm actually going to get to do it. It's insane. I can't wait."
Three years ago, fellow Bluegrass native Jarrod Polson was in Hawkins' shoes as a first timer. Now a senior, Polson will be participating in Madness for the fourth time, but it's far from old hat.
The fan favorite said on Tuesday his "wheels are turning" about his dance and has an idea what he'll do, but he's not telling either.
"That'll ruin the fun," Polson said.
Not everyone has finalized their dancing plans yet, however.
"I'm not really a dancer, so I don't know what I'm going to do to be honest," Andrew Harrison said. "But I'm just looking forward to it. A little nervous, but I'm excited at the same time."
Nervousness is natural for UK's newcomers given the magnitude of Madness. Members of UK's top-ranked recruiting class are just two weeks removed from seeing the anticipation for Madness firsthand as fans lined up for tickets in record numbers. Now that they'll be directly involved for the first time, they're eager to see what's in store even though many were on campus for visits during the 2012 event.
"I asked some of the other players," forward Julius Randle said. "I was like, 'Do we practice or do we go out there a couple days before and see what we're going to do?' They're like, 'No, it's pretty much a surprise for you too.' I don't know what to expect. I've already seen how crazy these people are when they camped out and stuff, so I don't know what to expect."
One thing Randle can expect is another show-stopping dance by Matthew Mitchell after the women's head coach's idea for a "The Lion King"-inspired Madness introduction was nixed by his wife, Jenna, who gave birth to the couple's second daughter last week.
"This year, I was thinking, maybe we would try to have a live birth out there on the main floor -- all right -- and offer up the child to the Big Blue Nation," Mitchell joked. "I think that would be an outstanding way to usher in the season."
Instead, Mitchell will try to once again one-up his own moves. Over the last three seasons, Mitchell has done The Dougie and channeled both MC Hammer and Michael Jackson.
"You're stuck with me dancing again this year," Mitchell said.
Thirty-one years ago, Joe B. Hall had an idea. Capitalizing on an NCAA rule that allowed teams to begin practicing at 12:01 a.m. on Oct. 15, Hall wanted to involve students and get them fired up for the 1982-83 season. UKNow has the story:
The first Big Blue Madness, billed as "Midnight Special," did not have all the glitz and glam that is now associated with UK's first practice.
"We had some little games set up for the students to participate and so the night that we had our first madness I think we drew about 8,500 students," Hall continued. "The word spread and it turned out to be so much fun and the students just absolutely loved it; I mean, anything students will do at midnight is fun. The day, the pressures of their classwork had worn off and it was just a great evening. It was stimulation for players, a way to kick off the season and the first practice with that kind of exhibition. It just proved to be really a lot of fun."
So much fun that word quickly spread about UK's midnight practice that the following year, fans, not just students, flocked to Memorial Coliseum to get a first glimpse at their Wildcats.
And it's only grown since. Now, Big Blue Madness has become one of most anticipated UK Athletics events of the season. Thousands camp out for tickets to the event, which has evolved into more of a show than a practice.
It's going to be another packed house in Rupp Arena for the 2013 edition, which begins at 7:30 p.m. ET on Friday. This year, fans can be part of the show like never before by downloading the Wham City Lights app on the App Store or Android Marketplace.
James Young answers questions at Kentucky's annual Media Day on Tuesday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
The NBA scouts lining the wall of the Joe Craft Center probably had a feeling they would leave Lexington wowed by a couple of players.
Julius Randle was probably one of them. Willie Cauley-Stein, likely. The Harrison twins probably intrigued them. And in all likelihood, Marcus Lee made their jaws drop a couple of times.
But the guy they talked about the most, the one that left them wowed when they boarded their planes and headed home, wasn't who most people think it would be.
"Everybody that walks in the building, the guy that they're saying is the standout is James Young - like every day," John Calipari said Tuesday at UK Media Day. "We've had NBA scouts in here every day. They're all speaking about him."
It wasn't as if Young wasn't one of the gems in this year's top-ranked recruiting class. Ranked No. 11 overall by Rivals.com, Young signed with UK with a reputation as a great shooter, a top-level athlete and an explosive driver.
What Calipari and everyone else are finding out is those superlatives are just scratching the surface.
"I never got the opportunity to play against James except at a camp or whatever, but I've seen his growth and development," said freshman teammate Julius Randle. "He's gotten bigger. He's gotten taller, faster, stronger. He could always really shoot the ball, but now he's learning how to attack. His game is really evolving."
Randle was labeled a month ago by Calipari as being the "alpha beast" of the team, a role many predict he will still assume once the season starts, but Coach Cal said Tuesday that Young has been just as good, according to the scouts.
"I just listen to it and try not to think about it as much," Young said. "I keep trying to go day by day and make myself even better than they think I am. I'm trying to shock everybody."
Young has certainly shocked his teammates and coaches with a number of things.
There's his ability to absorb contact and get to the rim: "In transition, he's kind of like Michael Kidd(-Gilchrist)," Coach Cal said. "If he's out ahead, you throw him the ball (and) something good will happen."
He has a better-than-advertised shooting touch: "You can't leave him open," Alex Poythress said. "He hits all of his shots."
And his speed is second to none on this team: "No one knows how fast he is," Jarrod Polson said. "I think he's definitely probably the fastest person on the team. He can fly up and down the court if you get it to him."
But what's taken Calipari by surprise more than anything else is Young's potential to be a lockdown defender. At 6-foot-5, 215 pounds, he has the ability to shut down two guards and wings on the college level.
"He has really long arms," Polson said. "He's 6-7 right now and he's quick. That's really the perfect build. He kind of reminds me of DeAndre (Liggins)."
Liggins didn't buy in to being a defensive stopper until midway through his second year at UK, but once he did, he was one of the best defenders in the country. Like Liggins, Young is still getting accustomed to giving the type of energy it takes to defend on the college level, but the pieces are there.
"He's so long, he's so quick," Hood said, "you just have to make him want to do that all the time. That's what every freshmen that's ever come through here (has had to deal with). You have to make them want to do something all the time."
In due time, Young could become the next great defender. In the meantime, he seems to be doing enough right to catch the attention of NBA scouts.
"I've just been doing me actually, just going hard in practice," Young said. "People I guess didn't think I was going to come out and show my talent but that's what I came here to do." Defensively dominant?
For all the talk about the Dribble Drive Motion Offense, Calipari's best teams have all shared a different staple: defense.
From his 2008 national runner-up team at Memphis to the 2010 Kentucky squad and the 2012 national champions, they've all been terrific at locking down when they need to, blocking shots and holding the opposition to a paltry field-goal percentage.
With more size, more athletes and perhaps more depth than he has ever had, does Coach Cal think this has a chance to be one of his best defensive teams ever?
"I don't know," Calipari said. "You don't have an Anthony (Davis) even though we have some good shot blockers. And I don't know if we have a Michael Kidd because Michael had the combination of toughness, mental toughness and length to do it - and athleticism. So that ended up making that team the best defensive team in the country."
Even without Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist, Calipari said this team has the makings of a dominant defensive team because the guards are bigger than ever (see the Harrison twins and Young). And though there may not be a Davis on this team, Marcus Lee terrorized high school players last year with a 6.9 blocked shots average.
The hesitation by Calipari to call it a great defensive team is because he hasn't worked with his players on defense yet.
Where some teams and coaches like to institute defense first, Calipari prefers to go over the Dribble Drive to start the season because it forces the players to learn how to guard the driver anyway - what he calls the hardest thing to teach in the game - while schooling the offense.
"There's all kinds of ways of doing this job. ... We just do it the other way," Calipari said. "That doesn't mean it's the right way, but you want to establish that. We've always become a pretty good defensive team, but we've done nothing. Haven't done pick-and-roll defense, post defensive, playing the screen."
If this team is indeed in the mold of those other great teams, the defense will come in time.
The players determine their playing time
If there are potential traps for this Kentucky team, some people will tell you it's one of UK's greatest strengths: depth.
With so many players, with so much talent, how will Calipari find enough minutes for everybody? How will he manage egos?
Apparently he won't.
"They're in control," Coach Cal said.
Calipari dismissed the notion put forth by a reporter at UK Media Day that he held the strings to this team and would ultimately be the one who decides who dances and who sits the bench.
"They earn it," Coach Cal said. "No one's promised anything here. You're going to have to earn minutes."
Calipari said he doesn't have the luxury of some of those Dean Smith-coached North Carolina teams that would substitute five guys at a time - the "bomb squad," he termed it - because of youth and inexperience.
Instead, he'll preach that playing time and shots aren't what this team and the players' futures will ultimately being judged on. As he's noted before, Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist took the fourth- and fifth-most shots on that 2012 title team and still went one and two, respectively, in the NBA Draft.
"Go rebound, defend, run the floor, make baskets," Calipari said. "Do the things that help us win and make you look good. You just have to explain it."
Calipari does that early in the recruiting process and makes sure his players understand that a players-first program doesn't mean it's all about one player doing what he wants.
"As long as you're about them, they'll listen," Coach Cal said. "They trust you, they'll play hard. You're not getting as many minutes because of this and this, but we've got your back. You're fine. You're going to be good. That's a challenge when you have a good, full team."
For months, Kentucky has been referred to as the potential preseason No. 1 team in the country. On Thursday, it finally became official.
UK comes in at No. 1 in the preseason USA Today coaches poll, receiving 16 of a possible 32 first-place votes to come in ahead of No. 2 Michigan State and No. 3 Louisville.
Though the ranking is hardly surprising, it's still historic. UK is the first team in the 22 years of the poll to go from unranked at the end of the previous season to ranked No. 1 at the start of the next. Coaches from around the country are clearly bullish on John Calipari's latest top-ranked recruiting class.
Also, this marks just the second time the Wildcats have been ranked No. 1 in the preseason. The only other time it happened was in 1995-96, when UK would go on to win its sixth national championship.
UK's ranking will be put to the test immediately, as the Cats will square off against the second-ranked Spartans on Nov. 12 in Chicago. Nonconference games at No. 11 North Carolina on Dec. 14 and in Rupp Arena against No. 3 Louisville on Dec. 28 also await UK. The only other ranked Southeastern Conference team is No. 8 Florida. UK will face the Gators twice in the final two weeks of the regular season.
Here's the complete top 25 with first-place votes in parentheses and UK regular-season opponents in italics:
1. Kentucky (16) 2. Michigan St. (3) 3. Louisville (10) 4. Duke (3) 5. Arizona 6. Kansas 7. Syracuse 8. Florida 9. Michigan 10. Ohio St. 11. North Carolina 12. Oklahoma St. 13. Memphis 14. Gonzaga 15. Virginia Commonwealth 16. Wichita St. 17. Marquette 18. Oregon 19. Connecticut 20. New Mexico 21. Wisconsin 22. Notre Dame 23. UCLA 24. Indiana 25. Virginia
Others Receiving Votes Baylor 102; Colorado 93; Creighton 87; Iowa 86; Tennessee 73; Georgetown 38; Harvard 28; Pittsburgh 23; California 16; Boise State 11; Saint Louis 8; La Salle 7; Temple 4; Missouri 4; Villanova 4; Kansas State 3; LSU 2; Iowa State 2; Arizona State 2; Illinois 2; Georgia 1; UNLV 1.