Kentucky Wildcats usher in new season with 23,000-plus at Big Blue Madness

Kentucky's annual Big Blue Madness is always one part celebration of the past, one part welcome to the newest Wildcats and one part sales pitch for the future stars of UK basketball.

On Friday, with more than 23,000 fans at a sold-out Rupp Arena, John Calipari paid homage to all of them.

"Eight national titles, the jerseys of 43 Kentucky basketball legends, hang in these rafters. It's a building named after 'Mr. Kentucky Basketball,' Adolph Rupp, and I'm honored and proud to be in the seat that he created. We have been, and will continue to be, the gold standard in college basketball," the UK coach said to a deafening roar from the Big Blue faithful. 

Kentucky enters the new season ranked No. 1 in the USA Today Coaches Poll and eager to hang a ninth championship banner after narrowly missing with last year's 38-1 squad. The Wildcats lost seven players to the NBA from that squad, but signed yet another top-ranked recruiting class this year, highlighted by top overall prospect Skal Labissiere (pictured above) a 6-foot-11 center from Haiti. It also features more international flair with Canadian guards Jamal Murray and Mychal Mulder and Australian center Isaac Humphries to go along with guards Isaiah Briscoe and Charles Matthews out of New Jersey and Chicago, respectively.

Blending all the new talent and personalities will be a challenge once again for Calipari.

"They've gotta have more fun than any team in the country, playing and growing together," he said. "That's how we become the last team standing. I believe in this group."

UK had many of its prime 2016 targets in attendance for Big Blue Madness, including No. 1 overall prospect/power forward Harry Giles, No. 1 point guard De'Aaron Fox and No. 1 shooting guard Malik Monk.

The message from Calipari was loud and clear, bolstered by appearances from former UK stars in the NBA, Anthony Davis, Demarcus Cousins and Willie Cauley-Stein, who are in town for this weekend's exhibition game between the New Orleans Pelicans and Sacramento Kings.

"You all know that playing at Kentucky is about being on the biggest of big stages," Calipari said. "Playing here is like performing at Carnegie Hall. If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere... Our goal is to help these kids chase those dreams."

In one of the (unintended?) light-hearted moments of the night, Calipari's annual address was interrupted by Beatle-esque screams for Davis -- who has emerged as one of the NBA's biggest stars after helping UK win a national championship in 2012 -- as he made his way across the arena to his courtside seat.

"Hey, Anthony. I'm over here giving a speech," the UK coach joked. "How 'bout you?"

Calipari closed the spectacle with a strong message to the estimated group of nine elite recruiting visitors.

"Who wants to be next?" he asked. "This team wants to be next... and hopefully some other people in this building."

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