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By RENE CORNETTE

Since John Calipari’s hiring in 2009, Big Blue Madness has gone to a whole other level. Every year is another opportunity to outdo the year before. It just keeps getting better and better. With another spectacular madness only a few short days away I’ve been thinking a lot, a whole lot about my favorite moments from the Calipari era. Here is my top 10 in no particular order because let’s face it they all are equally special and awesome in their own right. Enjoy.

1. It’s only fitting to start my list off with Cal’s first Big Blue Madness speech. He made a statement. He commanded attention and he got it. He put the world on notice that Kentucky was back and gunning for greatness. He had thousands upon thousands of people hanging on his every word. He laid out just what he intended to accomplish at Kentucky and four years later those words ring eerily true. It was his mantra and one he’s accomplished on all fronts.

2. The John Wall dance which created a phenomenon like we’d never seen before. That smile, that arm, I often think back to that moment and wonder if John Wall had any idea what he had just set in motion. He had just started a craze and made a defining impression on Big Blue Nation that would last a lifetime. Little did you know that while writing this I had to take a break just to do the dance. It was only fitting. Now go and YouTube his Big Blue Madness introduction and relive that moment all over again.

3. The Kentucky Effect which defined the Calipari era in one graphic. Want to go to the NBA and be successful? Then Kentucky is the school for you. The moment when Cal brought out our former CATS now playing in the NBA and lined them up on stage was powerful. It was a recruiting tool that let’s face it most other schools just can’t touch. It was a moment where Calipari’s proclamation to be players first had never rung more true. It was special. It was untouchable. It was genius and it was all Cal. While most of us are sleeping, he’s instead up thinking about ways to take Kentucky to the next level. With a mind like his, I’m just glad he’s on our side.

4. The 2011 Final Four banner unveiling. That is a moment I will never forget. I always have nosebleed seats for games and Big Blue Madness. I’m not complaining though. I’m honestly just so happy to be there but that Big Blue Madness was a year those nosebleeds worked out to my advantage. I was so close to that banner being lowered that I swear I felt like I could jump out and touch it. Good thing, I didn’t try to because I probably wouldn’t be here right now to write this list for you. Thank God for smart decision making.

5. The Underkanter, need I say more. Enes Kanter may not have played one second in Rupp Arena but he will be remembered always for his Big Blue Madness entrance. It was theatrical. It was an omage to his love of wrestling and it endeared him into Big Blue Nation’s hearts forever. Can we all say, Free Enes just one more time?

6. The floor of Rupp Arena turning into a projection screen which immediately reverted me back to a child. All I could do was say wow over and over and scream at the top of my lungs. I could live to be 150 years old and that moment would still be one of my favorites. It was awesome. It was unexpected and it only could have happened at UK. We are even the gold standard for Madness events, folks.

7. Kentucky greats, Joe B. Hall, Goose Givens, Derek Anderson, Ron Mercer, Jeff Sheppard, Kyle Macy, Wah Wah Jones (Harlan’s own), Vernon Hatton, Cliff Hagan and Odie Smith reraising Kentucky’s eight national championship banners in Rupp Arena. It was a nod to our past, an embrace of our tradition and a moment that showed no matter how long it’s been since you’ve worn the blue you’re always welcome back at Kentucky. It was a moment that reduced me to a blubbering mess. It was that touching.

8. How can you talk about recent great Big Blue Madness moments and not talk about Coach Mitchell’s Dougie dance. It was his moment. His time to shine and did he ever take advantage of it. He created a sensation and hype around his basketball team that was unmatched. From that moment on a legend was born and all across the land everyone clamored to find out what he would do at the next Big Blue Madness. What is he doing at this years Big Blue Madness? We’ll find out soon.

9. The moment Coach Mitchell out mitchelled himself by doing the best dang Hammer dance since MC Hammer himself broke it down. It was a full on production and left me wondering if Coach Mitchell might have a career as a back up dancer once he retires from coaching. I see potential there.

10. Jarrod Polson coming out to, Justin Beiber’s, “Baby, Baby” and proceeding to do a silly dance with the biggest smile on his face. That may not have been a wow moment but it was a fun, light hearted moment that captured what Big Blue Madness should be. It should make you smile, laugh and see a different side of our players. It’s their time to shine and they should enjoy it. Jarrod Polson did just that.

That’s my list. Did I leave your favorite memory off? If so, post your’s in the comment section.

By LARRY VAUGHT

Jeff Sheppard thinks current Kentucky basketball players have a “little” sense of UK history, but not as much as they probably should.

“I would have been the same way if I left after my freshman year (for the NBA),” said Sheppard. “I came in and had Travis Ford, Jared Prickett, Gimel Martinez and Jeff Brassow, all veteran players, to take me under their wings. Travis Ford would take me home to Madisonville and that’s when I really knew this Kentucky basketball thing was unbelievable. I don’t know how many current players get to do that now and go around the state and see what Kentucky basketball is all about. There is a respect for the tradition, but it is just different.

“I have a great relationship with Rex (Chapman), Sam (Bowie), Kyle (Macy) and all those old Kentucky basketball players that used to play a long time ago. Us young guys have a real respect for them. But I was at UK five years.”

Sheppard thinks current players also miss the benefit of having Bill Keightley, UK’s long-time equipment manager who was known as Mr. Wildcat for his years of work, around daily like he did. Keightley passed away before UK coach John Calipari arrived.

“One guy we miss at Kentucky basketball more than any individual to bridge the gap from old and new was Bill Keightley. He was the last one to bridge gap from Cotton Nash to Demarcus Cousins,” Sheppard said. “He did it well with few words. He knew everybody and everybody loved him. When he passed away, I never thought I could miss a non-family member as much as Mr. Keightley.”

Sheppard said players always found time to visit Keightley, and he always welcomed them and entertained them with UK stories.

“When you had an hour between appointments, you would stop by the equipment room. You did not go to see the coaches or the gym or the (Wildcat) Lodge. You went to the equipment room,” Sheppard said. “You might see the governor talking to Dan Issel. You might see coach Pitino talking to Ralph Beard. In between was Mr. Keightley telling a story.

“He bridged everything together. He was best recruiter of all time at Kentucky. He had way about him about how to work hard and treat people right without saying a word. You just had to watch him. We miss him a lot.”

Sheppard also offered a variety of other insights last week during his talk at the Ohio UK Convention.

By LARRY VAUGHT

The Cats have been without sophomore point guard Ryan Harrow the last two games and there has been no update on his status for Wednesday other than information released Friday that he was “day to day” before he missed that game with an unknown illness. Morehead State coach Sean Woods thinks not having Harrow has changed UK’s mentality.

“I think now they become instead of one of the top teams to beat, they are now one of the biggest underdogs in the country. They are like a wounded dog. That’s even more scary because you do not know where they will hit you,” Woods, a former point guard, said.

He has been impressed with UK freshman Archie Goodwin, who has primarily played the point with Harrow out.

“He is relentless. He is not scared to make mistakes,” Woods said. “I would rather try to calm a guy down than speed him up. Cal has that luxury. I think as the season goes on he will become one of the most dynamic players in the country.”

Kentucky freshman forward Alex Poythress is the Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Week after averaging 21 points and 6.5 rebounds in games against  Duke and Lafayette. He had 20 points against Duke and 22 against Lafayette to become the first UK freshman since Brandon Knight to have consecutive 20-point efforts.

Former UK All-American Kyle Macy compared him to former Wildcat Jamal Mashburn on FoxSports South last week. Woods thought that might have been a bit brash.

“Jamal Mashburn. Wow. I don’t know about that one,” Woods said. “Jamal was pretty daggone good and could do more things than Poythress can. I think Poythress is more of a banger trying to be skilled. I don’t see him shooting 3’s a lot in his career. Jamal could shoot 3’s. I think he is very, very good. Don’t get me wrong. But a Jamal Mashburn, that’s going too far. Jamal Mashburn might be the most talented player ever to wear the Big Blue all around.”

Chuck Smith gets a hug from Jacob Tamme after a Cats win. (Clay Jackson photo)

Chuck Smith gets a hug from Jacob Tamme after a Cats win. (Clay Jackson photo)

By LARRY VAUGHT

He’s got a long list of celebrities again participating, but Jacob Tamme knows why the third annual Swings For Soldiers Classic July 16 in Lexington again looks like it is going to be a successful fundraiser for Homes for Our Troops.

“We have people who care about what we are doing,” said Tamme, the former Boyle County and University of Kentucky standout who now plays for the Denver Broncos. “There are so many things for people to be involved with that are good causes, but here you see the impact you can have on a family.”

Homes for Our Troops has a simple mission: To build specially adapted homes for wounded veterans as the needs grows because  more servicemen and women are coming home without the mobility needed to operate in their previous home.

The golf scramble July 16 at Keene Run Golf Club will again have 8 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. rounds, the same format as last year after the first event in 2010 had only one set of tee times. Tamme has slightly reduced the number of teams playing in the morning and afternoon to make the rounds go faster. He also has a few spots left for four-member teams in the morning rounds (go to http://www.swingsforsoldiers.org for more information). There will be a 6:30 p.m. dinner and silent auction to conclude the fundraiser.

“We’ve had a few folks that have participated in the past that can’t for different reasons, but we’ve had new ones come in,” Tamme said. “We feel like we put on a neat event and it is for a great cause.”

His celebrity guest list can change but it will include UK football coach Joker Phillips for the first time as well as UK athletics director Mitch Barnhart. Kentucky offensive coordinator Randy Sanders will also play as well as Green Bay receiver Randall Cobb unless he has a late scheduling conflict. Former UK quarterbacks Shane Boyd, Bill Ransdell and Jared Lorenzen will play

Former UK basketball players Ron Mercer, Walter McCarty and Antoine Walker are all possibilities. Former UK All-American guard Kyle Macy will play along with Mike Pratt, a former UK basketball standout and current analyst on the UK Radio Network.

Tamme’s former Indianapolis teammate, quarterback Curtis Paynter, is also coming back. He’s now with the Baltimore Ravens.

County music singer John Michael Montgomery has also indicated he’ll play.

“We will have five or six military guests as celebrity golfers, too,” Tamme said. “Ken Preston, the new president for Home for Our Troops, will also play golf.”

Tamme is pleased that Kenneth Parker of Evansville will attend also. Proceeds from the event will be going to help fund his new home.

Tamme and his wife, Allison, will be going July 20-22 to go help with the construction. “Allison knows every bit as much about what to do as I do. Basically, they’ll just have to tell us what to do and we will try not to mess up,” Tamme said.

Little goes wrong at the Tammes’ event because of the volunteers, including numerous family members, that help. Tamme also credits Jamie Legate (859-913-9261, jamie@swingsforsoldiers.org) and Kate Ballard (502-294-0439, kate@swingsforsoldiers.org) for handling even more organizational details this year as he made the move from Indianapolis where he played for four years to Denver.

“It has been a crazy time, but we’ve had so much support for this event,” Tamme said. “Jamie and Kate have been unbelievable.

“We will have a lot of the same volunteers this year, and people enjoy that. We have become friends with several people we did not know before through this event. I also think people enjoy see the family members we have volunteering and working.”

* * *
Anyone wishing to make a donation can go to SwingsforSoldiers.org, click on the donate button and follow instructions. Or you can send a check payable to Homes for Our Troops care of me at Box 149, Danville, Ky., 40422, and I will get the checks to Tamme. I’ll even match the first $100 in donations for this worthy cause.

Louisville’s loss to Georgetown on Wednesday was “damaging” to the fourth-ranked Cardinals going into Saturday’s game at No. 3 Kentucky and ESPN college basketball analyst says that’s one reason he’s picking the Wildcats to win 74-68. “The only way Louisville has a chance is to make a lot of 3’s like Indiana did (when it gave UK its only loss),” said Vitale Thursday. “If you don’t make 3’s, you don’t beat Kentucky. Louisville will battle, but when it is all said and done, (John) Calipari’s team will not lose on its home court.”

Vitale also says there’s no doubt “Kentucky has absolutely more to lose” in the game than Louisville because of lofty preseason expectations for Calipari’s team.
“Kentucky has more to lose, Louisville has more to gain,” Vitale said. “The standard is so high for Kentucky, this is a game they have to win.”

Here’s how other national and state media members responded when asked who would win the game and which team had more to lose/gain in the game.

Question: Who do you think will win Saturday’s Kentucky-Louisville game and why?

Kyle Macy, WLAP Sunday Morning Sports Talk: “I will take Kentucky! I think the home court will be the difference.  U of L has only played one game outside of the KFC Yum Center so far and that was at Butler, who is having a down year.  Seemingly, all Big East teams are taking this approach of playing only home games vs non-conference opponents so as to build up a high numbers of wins and thereby a higher RPI.  (see Syracuse, there recent game at NC State was their first true non-conference road game since 2008)  Then, with these elevated rankings, when they lose multiple games in conference it doesn’t hurt their rankings.  Granted the Cards have played some good teams, but playing on the road can be a challenge, and you never know how a team will react?”

Michael DeCourcy, Sporting News: “At least on the front end, that doesn’t seem like a tough question. Kentucky has the better players and is playing at home. That should get it done. But the Wildcats would be wise to not leave it close at the end, and absolutely to play to the final buzzer. One thing Louisville does as well as anyone: believe. Sometimes I think they’re changing clothes in the locker room after a loss and still trying to figure out a way to turn it into a win.”

Keith Taylor, Winchester Sun: “Kentucky has proven to be a tough team to beat under John Calipari at Rupp Arena and I don’t think it will change against an instate rival. Louisville is ranked right behind Kentucky in the polls, but, Louisville’s roster isn’t interchangeable like Kentucky’s and the Wildcats have proved they can win without Terrence Jones. Louisville is a good team, but I really don’t think the Cardinals can matchup with Kentucky’s size in the post and won’t have answer for Anthony Davis inside. The return of Jones, along with Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist give the Wildcats an edge in this one.”

Chris Dortch, Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook: “I think Kentucky will win, for a couple of reasons. I think the home-court advantage for Kentucky has become huge in coach Calipari’s three seasons. And I think Kentucky’s frontcourt is more talented and physical than Louisville’s.”

Larry Glover, Larry Glover Live: “I definitely think UK will win. The Cats hold all of the Cards, so to speak, with talent and home court advantage at the top of list. Louisville’s only chance is that they catch the Cats a little flat and there is NO way that Cal and the Big Blue Nation will let that happen.”

Matt Jones, Kentucky Sports Radio: “I will take Kentucky due to the combination of more offensive weapons and home court advantage. Both teams can play defense, but I simply don’t see how UL will be able to score on Kentucky. They don’t have the offensive firepower of UK and will be unable to get the easy baskets that the Cats can produce.”

Jacqueline Sprague, WTVQ: “I think Kentucky will win the Louisville game. It will be a tough battle but I don’t think the Cards have enough ammo to beat the loaded Cats team, especially with T. Jones playing. However, this ESPN magazine coming out with Anthony Davis adds a little more fuel to the fire.”

Alan Cutler, WLEX-TV: “I like UK and not because I work in Lexington. It’s at Rupp. UK has better talent. But for those UK fans who hate Louisville and don’t give them any credit, so far this year when it comes to playing offense, pretty is not the word you would use. But they play defense and they are tough. March tough? No. December tough. For UK fans, the raw power of the athletes often makes some exciting plays, but pretty is not a word you would use for their offense. UK is still trying to figure out their rolls and has a long ways to go when it comes to playing together. But, for a young team they play defense and they are tougher than Cal tells us. But, Cal is right, they aren’t March tough. December tough? Yes.
“Look for a low scoring game. Hope that the refs don’t decide the game with blowing the whistle too early and too often with too many of the best players sitting and watching. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist says he won’t change how he plays. But he’s been picking up ‘two’ fouls quickly.  Scoring eight points in the first half against Lamar is okay.  Playing only seven minutes in the first half because he was in foul trouble isn’t.”

Mark Mathis, Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer: “UK will win the game 77-68. It has more overall talent than UofL, although the Cardinals have decent depth despite all their injuries. Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist need to continue to play strong inside and in the lane. Terrence Jones needs to have a much better effort than he did at Indiana.”

Mark Buerger, WLAP: “UK wins. I’m hard pressed to find a position where Louisville has an advantage over Kentucky (maybe Siva, but he can just as well play Louisville out of a game as play them into one). Between that and the game being at Rupp, it’s UK’s to lose.

Kyle Macy

By LARRY VAUGHT

When Kentucky lost at North Carolina early in the 2010-11 season, it was possible to project that Kentucky would be a better team if the two teams met again later in the season because of the dependence the Wildcats had on freshmen.

Kentucky did come back and beat North Carolina in March, too, in the NCAA Tournament Elite Eight.

But what if the two teams play again in the NCAA Tournament this season? Which team figures to have improved more from the time of UK’s one-point win last week until March Madness rolls around?

“I like UK’s upside more as they are younger and still learning, plus with the season they will gain valuable experience. Not to mention the talent level is pretty good,” said former UK All-American point guard Kyle Macy, who now works as a TV color analyst and is also a Lexington radio sports talk show host.

Both teams are good. Really good.

And don’t forget that even with North Carolina’s older roster, the Tar Heels also have some talented newcomers and the team will likely improve as players become more accustomed to playing together.

Kentucky has a senior — Darius Miller — playing in coach John Calipari’s system for the third season. Two others, sophomores Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb, are in year two. For Calipari, that could be as much experience as he’ll have among his top seven players while he’s coaching at Kentucky.

“If I am doing my job, players are leaving here,” said Calipari. “If I coach them right, they will be ready to move on (to the NBA).”

With the high level talent he recruits, he’s right.

Still, Macy sees a big upside for Kentucky. The Wildcats have four freshmen — Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marquis Teague and Kyle Wiltjer — among the top seven players and it’s impossible to believe all will not be better in March than they are now even though they have already been good enough to help beat Kansas and North Carolina.

“But I also think a guy like (senior Eloy) Vargas is going to keep getting better,” Macy said. “The whole bench is doing what it is asked to do. Just come in and be solid. That’s what they need from Vargas, and he’s doing it. Block shots. Rebound. Play defense. Be physical. If he can do that for eight to 10 minutes, that’s huge for Kentucky.”

If Vargas can do that, and it seems Calipari is starting to believe he can, it makes it easier to give Davis and/or Jones a needed break.

“Kentucky is so young, you know it will develop and improve,” Macy said. “I think with North Carolina, you may already know what you are going to get.

“The talent level, from top to bottom, is better at Kentucky. Calipari may not play as many players and the last guy may not be as talented as North Carolina’s guy, but at the top Kentucky is more talented.”

He’s right because last week’s game showed that Kidd-Gilchrist can more than hold his own with North Carolina sophomore Harrison Barnes, a preseason All-American like Jones. It showed that Davis can hold up inside against Carolina’s Tyler Zeller and John Henson if he becomes more physical like he did the second half.

“Then don’t forget that Wiltjer is going to improve. There are questions about his strength and quickness, but he can bang and rebound,” Macy said. “He’s also such a threat on the perimeter to score, but he can also go inside and do damage like he did against North Carolina. To me, he is maybe the wild card for Kentucky. You can put him in a game and see how he is doing. If he can maintain his own on defense, then you can keep him in and let his offense really cause problems. Teams don’t usually have a guy like that to bring in off the bench.”

North Carolina coach Roy Williams says Kentucky has one thing most teams don’t have — scoring versatility.

“They have the ability to score at every position,” Williams said. “I think they are trying to get one of their good players an advantage and then be a basketball player. The lateral screen underneath is tough to handle, the flat screen out front,” Williams said. “We were pretty good defensively, they made some big time shots and it’s hard for a coach to say we were good defensively when they shot 56 percent in the second half. But they’re willing to run some clock also.

“It’s not just throw up the first bad shot. So for me, I’d like it a lot better if John would let them take bad shots but I don’t think they did that. I think what he was doing offensively is what they work on every day. If they take some bad shots it usually helps us and I didn’t see many.”

That’s because Kentucky did maintain its poise against the more experienced Tar Heels and won a December game that no one would have been shocked to see the Cats lose. But the good news for UK is that the players seem to understand they not only can get better, but they must get better.

“We felt like this was a test to see where we are at, playing against one of the best teams in the country, and we come out with a W,” Miller said after the North Carolina game. “I think we are pretty happy and proud about it, but we know we aren’t exactly where we want to be.”

And that’s why if the two teams do play again, one has to believe UK will be an even better team.

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