GameDay ready for sellout crowd at Rupp Arena

Head coach John Calipari cheers after Wall made a dunk during the UK men’s basketball against Long Beach State at Rupp Arena on Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2009. The Cats won 86-73 over the 49ers. Photo by Adam Wolffbrandt

On Saturday, it will be lights, camera, action at Rupp Arena.

The No. 3 Cats (23-1, 8-1 Southeastern Conference) will take on Tennessee (18-5, 6-3 SEC) at 9 p.m., but the festivities will begin in the morning when a sellout crowd at Rupp Arena watches ESPN broadcast their live weekly college basketball pregame show, College GameDay.

“I can’t believe it,” said ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas referring to the expected size of the crowd on Saturday. “I’ve never heard of anything like that. It just shows what fervor there is for basketball here and how great this place is.”

Bilas, a four-year starter at Duke under head coach Mike Krzyzewski from 1983-86, has worked as an analyst with ESPN since 1995, and has been a staple on the GameDay set.

Bilas said when the UK job came open a few years ago before Billy Gillispie accepted it, he disagreed with the discussion of people questioning just how good of a job it actually was.

“I was like, ‘Are you kidding? This is the best job in the country.’ Without argument it’s top five,” Bilas said. “A lot of people were saying Billy Donovan should take it. People were saying Florida is a better job. No. Whether he takes it or not is a personal decision, but there is no way Florida is a better job than this. The support this place gets is second to none.”

And that support will be in full force Saturday morning. Rupp Arena plans to set a new attendance record for College GameDay by selling out the famed arena and having 24,000 members of the Big Blue Nation cheering to their hearts’ content.

Bilas said, while he believes college basketball doesn’t have any great teams this year, that shouldn’t diminish what UK has accomplished because they’re Final Four good and “it’s remarkable of what they’ve done.”

“(Calipari’s) recruited. He’s a great salesman, and I mean that in a positive way,” Bilas said. “You don’t get this kind of response without players, and he’s got players. They’ve got more talent than anybody. It’s the most talented team in college basketball without question.”

ESPN college basketball analyst and former Notre Dame head coach Digger Phelps agreed with Bilas, saying he believes Calipari has done a great job of bringing them along, but they’re still freshmen. Phelps pointed to one of Calipari’s former point guards in Derrick Rose, and said he was surrounded by upper classmen. Phelps said a team like Kansas, with veteran players who have won a championship before, would be an interesting matchup with UK.

In the last three games, UK has started four players who didn’t play Division I basketball last year, and a junior in Patrick Patterson who has never played in the NCAA Tournament before.

“(Kansas senior guard) Sherron Collins doesn’t worry about (Eric) Bledsoe and (John) Wall. He’s won a national title,” Phelps said. “(Kansas senior center) Cole Aldrich has been there so you got two seniors. And you take a look at DeMarcus Cousins, well all right he’s become what he is, but don’t forget Marcus Morris with Kansas is doing the same thing that Cousins is doing here.”

Bilas, who worked with Cousins during the summer at the Nike Skills Academy, said Cousins is the one player who nobody has an answer for, and can’t be defended one-on-one.

“He’s got tools that very few people have,” Bilas said. “The only thing that can stop DeMarcus Cousins is DeMarcus Cousins. I think it’s pretty well documented that he needs to grow up, but that’s not an indictment. A lot of kids need to grow up. He’s got some maturity issues that once he straightens out, and I’m hopeful that he will, he’ll be an unstoppable force. He’s an NBA All-Star. He’s Derrick Coleman, Roy Tarpley, all those guys wrapped into one. He’s got amazing ability.”

Phelps said GameDay has been growing over the years, citing Kansas State bringing 8,100 people into their arena, but Calipari at UK brings something different.

“We knew about Coach Cal’s marketing techniques, not just recruiting three great freshmen, but knowing he’s coming to Kentucky to win a national championship, which gets this place fired up,” Phelps said. “Blue’s back.”