Hype even higher for this year’s Big Blue Madness



A few weeks ago, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist considered the 550 tents circling Memorial Coliseum for Big Blue Madness tickets.

He had heard about UK fans’ passion before he came to college. He experienced it once he was on campus, with people asking for autographs and pictures and wanting to talk about the upcoming year. But he didn’t know that many people would be camping out.

“I mean, I knew they would be (camping),” Kidd-Gilchrist said. “But it’s even crazier than what I thought.”

Maybe Kidd-Gilchrist doesn’t quite realize how special this year can be and that Big Blue Madness will be a reflection of the heightened anticipation for this season.

The event is always saturated in hype. It’s the start of the season and the first chance to watch these players on the court, unless you’re a female who went to the women’s clinic.

But Madness is even bigger this time because it’s the start of this particular season (and a chance to stop making ourselves pay attention to football). Expectations are higher than they have been in more than a decade, and rightfully so.

Head coach John Calipari’s first year was hyped, mostly because it represented the dawn of a new era. The players were certainly talented, but nobody quite had a solid basis for what to expect out of a freshmen-laden team. Last season, the shadow of Enes Kanter still hung over the team in October, and it took an SEC Tournament championship to send hopes of winning a national title to plausible levels.

But with this team — the promise of an eighth banner hasn’t been this tangible this soon in a long time. The 2011-12 Cats, with the combination of multiple players with experience and talented freshmen, are the best collection of talent Calipari has had in his three years. The roster is ridden with players complementing each other’s skill sets, and they will play exactly the way Calipari wants to — fast.

At a recent coaches clinic, Calipari called this year’s team his fastest since his 2008 Memphis squad. That Memphis team finished runner-up in the NCAA Tournament.

Compounding the hype, the new freshmen are not only heralded — a third straight No. 1 recruiting class for Calipari — but they were all committed for more than a year. This season has always been on the horizon.

Finally, it’s here. Finally, the players make the transition from subjects of YouTube highlight reels to players in UK uniforms.

And an underrated part of this Madness: For most of the players, it will be the first of many times we see them. For Ryan Harrow, it will be the first and only time we see him. Harrow, a transfer who has to sit out a year, has been  a hot topic ever since he started playing pickup games. Madness will be our one chance to see what he’s got, and I’m sure he realizes it, too.

Undeniably, Madness is more of a show than a practice, although it does function as the first official practice of the year. The fireworks, the introductions and the speeches usher in a new season. The 24,000-plus fans watching in Rupp Arena (perhaps the last time Madness will be in Rupp Arena?) will love it.

Still, Madness can show us something. How the players react, not only to the adoration and the applause but also to each other, will be something. Not much, considering the circumstances, but it can show whose personality is endearing to the crowd — whether that’s a creating a dance craze (John Wall, Josh Harrellson) or being a big Turkish badass (Enes Kanter) — and who prefers to hunker down and go about his business. Those things may not be all that worthwhile in the grand scheme of the season, but it does provide some insight into how the players interact with each other and the fans.

Who knows what will happen at Madness. Whatever occurs, it’s about to get started.

Maybe it will be, as Kidd-Gilchrist said, even crazier than what we thought.