LEXINGTON, Ky. -- They came out to flashing lights and pulsing music, the highlight exclamation point of a two-hour show rehearsed and timed better than a Broadway hit that was equal parts pomp and party.
Welcome to Big Blue Madness, an idol-worshiping of teenagers that would make Justin Bieber jealous. There was a countdown clock, pyrotechnics, dancing, locked-out NBA stars, spotlights, and even a little basketball tossed in.
This show, though, wasn’t about unveiling Kentucky’s new offensive options -- pick and roll, anyone?
It was about unveiling the latest-model Wildcats. (Honestly, Apple would be wise to steal from UK’s debut programs as it searches for a new launch model post-Steve Jobs).
And so the fans at Friday night's Big Blue Madness cheered faithfully for all of their Wildcats, but they reserved some of their biggest hosannas for the freshmen, the latest crop of possible one-and-doners beginning their likely short stays in Lexington.
Since coach John Calipari arrived, this has become an annual occurrence, prompting a now yearly debate: The new class is in, so where does it rank compared to the previous ones?
The jury will remain out on that question until the season ends -- though there will certainly be constant comparisons from now until April -- but like always, how well the freshmen adapt will go a long way in determining Kentucky’s success.
There is a glut of talent -- four freshmen and four McDonald’s All-Americans ranks as a pretty decent recruiting batting average -- but in essence, the Cats once more are starting over.
And that is why, mixed in with the euphoria at the start of the season, there is always a bit of anxiety. No freshmen-dominated team has ever won a national championship, one of those niggling nuggets that will gnaw at Kentucky until the Wildcats upset the stat.
“At the end of the day, 10 years from now, we’ll be able to look back and say, ‘OK, this is how it happened,'’’ Calipari said.
UK's third-year coach says he likes what he has with this team. Or at least he thinks he does. Until Friday, Calipari had spent all of seven hours working and practicing with these players.
But he said he believes this group works harder than any he’s coached previously and is really impressed with their defensive tenacity. For what they lack in height and girth -- there are no true centers on this team and Calipari admits they are "skinny" -- they make up for in ridiculous length and speed.
Still, he knows what he’s up against. As good as they are, these guys are freshmen and there is no way to mask experience in the college game.
“The guys told me I can’t be ready for the speed of the game,’’ point guard Marquis Teague said. “Most of us, we’ve been playing basketball our whole lives, but still it will be different.’’
Just how quickly the freshmen adjust to the difference will determine how good Kentucky will be and can be.
But if last season taught the Wildcats anything, it is that while it may eventually be all about the freshmen, it can’t always be all about the freshmen.
UK may have finished the season in the Final Four, but the Cats didn’t start that way. They were a pedestrian 5-5 in the SEC and 17-7 overall out of the gate, losing six of their first seven conference road games. The blame, at the time, went to the freshmen. They weren’t good enough, not living up to the hype and so on.
Truth is, those on the inside say, it had nothing to do with the freshmen.
“We have to take more time and help them along from the beginning,’’ senior Darius Miller said. “We didn’t do a good job of that last year and I think that’s why we struggled. I think a lot of times, we found ourselves standing back and watching them. We thought they had all this talent and hype, so we should be able to just them go. We can’t do that. We have to help them and lead them.’’
To where? To New Orleans, site of the Final Four?
That’s to be determined.
But it should be noted: Of all the ovations and crazed cheers on Friday night, the biggest was reserved for a piece of fabric: the new Final Four banner unfurled from the Rupp Arena rafters.
Will there be a similar moment during the 2012 Big Blue Madness? And will the banner be a distinct kind, joining seven others that hang high atop Rupp?
Those answers won't officially come until spring -- but it's never too early to look for clues.
For the next five and a half months, the eyes of Big Blue Nation will be doing just that.