CatsIllustrated - Cats usher in new basketball season with Big Blue Madness
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Cats usher in new basketball season with Big Blue Madness

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- The old saying, "What a difference a year makes," typically applies to a team's change of fortunes from one season to the next.

According to Kentucky head coach John Calipari, it already rings true long before the Wildcats even play their first game.

"As we tip off the new season, we remind everyone what separates Kentucky from everyone else," Calipari told the sold-out crowd at Rupp Arena on Friday night as UK held its annual Big Blue Madness.

"It's you, the fans. Tonight, we celebrate you. And as I stand here before you tonight, I am reminded of how much we missed your energy you provide. We truly understand the advantage you provide us."

The Wildcats lacked that advantage last season as the Covid-19 pandemic wiped out Big Blue Madness and limited crowds at one of college basketball's iconic venues to less than 3,100 fans per game.

Kentucky suffered greatly, perhaps more than any other major program, losing several close games en route to a woeful 9-16 record. The Cats lost six games at Rupp Arena after losing only 71 times in the previous 44 years combined.

Hope has returned to Big Blue Nation, however, as Calipari rebuilt his roster with four prominent D1 transfers and another elite recruiting class. Madness was the first official look at some of those new faces, including point guard Sahvir Wheeler (via Georgia), wings Kellan Grady (Davidson) and CJ Fredrick (Iowa), and big man Oscar Tshiebwe (West Virginia).

They join veterans like combo guard Davion Mintz, wings Dontaie Allen and Jacob Toppin, and forwards Keion Brooks and Lance Ware, along with a ballyhooed recruiting class that includes five-star guard TyTy Washington, five-star forward Damion Collins, and four-star forward Bryce Hopkins.

It may be the biggest combination of experience and depth that Calipari has coached during his 12 years in Lexington.

"I'm so happy for our fans and for these players," Calipari said. "This is what Kentucky is about.

"... Our challenge today -- challenging you, Big Blue Nation -- is to come together like never before. You have always been a difference-maker for us. And I ask you tonight, this season, take it to a new level."

The festivities also featured a moving tribute to Terrence Clarke, a member of last year's team who passed away in a Los Angeles car accident this spring. Clarke's family was on hand for Madness and received a standing ovation from the crowd. The players also presented his grandmother with a pair of custom Nike shoes that depicted the image of Terrence's face, his jersey No. 5, and a pair of angel wings.

"I'm so sorry Terrence didn't have an opportunity to experience this in person, but I know he's here in spirit tonight," Calipari said.