Calipari Greeted to Hero's Welcome at UK

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LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) -- On a stage befitting a rock star, John Calipari got his first taste of a packed house at Rupp Arena on Friday night and promised to return Kentucky basketball to "its rightful place at the top of the mountain."

The new Wildcats coach made his entrance around 8:40 p.m. to chants of "Go Big Blue" during the program's preseason pep rally, Big Blue Madness. Then he spent the next 15 minutes delivering a rousing speech to a crowd that needed little convincing.

"I see the foundation for my vision of this program," said Calipari, at points yelling so loud that his voice seemed to crack. "It's a vision where we are the gold standard, not just for college basketball but for all college athletics."

Smoke and pyrotechnics filled the air as Calipari -- decked in a gray shirt, not blue -- strolled across a huge stage erected at one end of the arena, flanked by three enormous video boards and surrounded by screaming fans.

Calipari's first words to the sellout crowd: "All I can say, you all are awesome."

Before his arrival, the players were introduced one by one -- standing on a catwalk above the center video screen as their names were called.

A stirring video montage showed film clips -- many of them black and white -- of the great moments in the history of Kentucky basketball, which has won seven national titles and has more victories than any program. Among the words on the screen during the montage: "Envy our past. Fear our future."

"I'm excited, I'm humbled and I'm honored to be your coach," Calipari said. "Tonight we turn the page from anticipation to preparation."

After the players lined up to show off their best dunks, they split into teams for the customary scrimmage, which all-Southeastern Conference center Patrick Patterson started with three baskets -- including two dunks.

On display, at least partially, was Calipari's patented dribble drive, which he called "basketball's most exciting offense."

It was also the fans' opportunity to get their first glimpse on the Rupp Arena court of a star-studded freshman class, headlined by John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe.

"If I have the choice between experience and talent, I'm taking talent every time," Calipari said.

Wall showed off the athleticism that has some proclaiming him as a national player of the year candidate. During one drive, he sped past two defenders near the free throw line, then went airborne, finishing with a backward dunk.

Although offense was intended to be the star of the show, defense was largely nonexistent. At one point, Calipari interrupted the scrimmage by taking the microphone and pointing out this shortcoming.

"Folks, I hope you're enjoying this, but do you see how far we have to go?" Calipari said. "All right, just so everybody understands it."

Among those who made an appearance over the course of the evening were country star Eddie Montgomery and former Kentucky great Tayshaun Prince. Calipari asked if actress Ashley Judd was in attendance, but that wasn't immediately clear.

Big Blue Madness went more than an hour before the men's team was introduced, starting with a fan nailing a long 3-pointer to win a home theater system.

Before the UK women scrimmaged, coach Matthew Mitchell acknowledged he knew who the star of the evening was, humorously urging the crowd to support Calipari because he is "a little shy."

Calipari replaced the fired Billy Gillispie six months ago after two tumultuous years, including last season when the Wildcats failed to even reach the NCAA tournament.

The crowd cheered loudly and often for the new team leader, and the coach gratefully basked in it.

"I want to thank the Big Blue nation for your warming and hospitality," he said. "You all have made us feel like we've been in the Commonwealth forever."