LEXINGTON, Ky. - A year ago, Kentucky’s Big Blue Madness was about showing off a new coach. This time, it was about showing off a new look.
Billy Gillispie’s Wildcats donned their new blue and white uniforms with a checkerboard pattern as the nation’s all-time winningest program kicked off its preseason preparations Friday night in front of 23,000 of their closest friends.
While fans arrived before 9 p.m., it wasn’t until 11:18 that the second-year coach finally made his appearance.
Last year, four large banners descended from the rafters, and when they finally dropped, there Gillispie stood, waving to the crowd.
This time, the banners fell while pyrotechnics filled Rupp Arena, but Gillispie was nowhere to be seen. Instead, he entered moments later, jogging through the crowd in his gray jumpsuit, dishing out high-fives along the way.
“I know they’re excited to be here,” Gillispie, already seemingly short of voice, said of his players. “They love being here at Kentucky.”
Gillispie’s entrance was far humbler than that of women’s coach Matthew Mitchell, who appeared riding on a fire truck.
The men’s team first took the court with a dunk contest that Ramon Harris clinched with an off the backboard follow that he jammed home.
Then, there was a defensive-minded scrimmage, in which both sides took more than three minutes to score. It was a troubling reminder of the team’s slow starts at times last season, which ended with a loss to Marquette in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Although the checkerboard pattern on the new uniforms is subtle, those who designed them for Nike said they were intended as a nod to jockey silks representing the state’s signature industry, horse racing. Penny Chenery, who owned 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat, received an honorary jersey from Gillispie at midcourt during the festivities.
They also feature a shoulder patch that says “Mr. Wildcat.” The reference is a tribute to longtime equipment manager Bill Keightley, who died earlier this year at 81. A lasting memorial to Keightley was painted on the Rupp Arena floor in front of his familiar spot on the bench.
His daughter, Karen, wept at that honor and as fans stood and politely applauded while a tribute video to Keightley played on the large screens.
Although the official opening practice of the college basketball season isn’t until Oct. 17, Kentucky is one of a handful of schools using a technicality in the NCAA rules to hold their bash a week earlier. The NCAA allows two hours of team workouts per week, starting in mid-September.
The early Madness events could be short-lived, though. National Association of Basketball Coaches spokesman Rick Leddy said the rule was intended to give coaches and players extra time working on their skills, not to hold a pep rally.
Gillispie said before the festivities that he planned to have fun at this year’s Madness after feeling a little too apprehensive ahead of last year’s festivities.
“I didn’t know what to expect last year,” he said. “I’ve been to a lot of Midnight Madness at different places, but Big Blue Madness is something special. I’m very excited about it.”
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