The impact of having a home-field advantage has never shined brighter than it did during Kentucky Football’s two program-changing wins over Florida and LSU earlier this season. The voice of the Big Blue Nation played a legitimate role in the outcomes of both games, something that wasn’t possible at all in 2020 due to the pandemic. John Calipari and the Kentucky Men’s Basketball squad felt the absence of fans in arenas throughout all of the 2020-21 season.
Full capacity will return return at Rupp Arena this coming season and Kentucky’s home court advantage will come with it. The fans and players got a brief sense of what that atmosphere will actually taste like last Friday at Big Blue Madness.
For many of the Wildcat student-athletes, playing in front of a full Rupp Arena crowd is something you can hope to imagine. Only a handful of players on the roster–Keion Brooks Jr., Brennan Canada, and Zan Payne–even know what it’s like to witness a packed Rupp.
Brooks Jr. is the only one who has played important minutes in front of those fans. Having people cheering and yelling in support makes a difference.
“It was amazing to have our fans pack the gym again,” Brooks Jr. said during Wednesday’s Media Day. “We got the best fans in the country so it was good to see them, be able to interact with them a little bit. I just can’t wait until we really have a real game in there and can really feel Rupp go crazy again.”
For the other 12 players on the team, Big Blue Madness was a brand new experience. But even Brooks Jr. couldn’t help but feel the anxiousness of playing basketball in front of over 20,000 people.
“It was a dope thing to see them (his teammates) actually realize and get to feel what Rupp is like,” Brooks Jr. continued. “You kinda get to take it for granted a little bit, because you know I’ve been through it before and I’ve experienced it. But as the intro went on for Big Blue Madness, you started to catch chills and you started to get excited. Our fans are back in the gym and we got the best fans in the country. It’s just an honor to have them around.”
For others, such as Jacob Toppin and Davion Mintz, who were on the team a season ago but were unfortunately limited to a strictly virtual experience, participating in a real Big Blue Madness was a long time coming.
“It was amazing to get out there and see that many people,” Mintz said at Media Day. “I’m used to seeing a couple thousand, if that–I can’t really keep a count on it–but last year during the pandemic we still had a good, supportive group but it was nothing compared to what came out to Big Blue Madness. Just seeing all those fans supporting, it was kinda like a dream come true. What you dream of as a kid, seeing all those fans, and it was a lot of fun.”
Toppin was especially excited for his first real BBM, executing two breath-taking slams in the Dunk Contest in front of the energized crowd. He was eager to give them something to cheer about, and is already looking forward to that first home-opener in November.
“It was fun. Just seeing the fans here and the fans chant, it was definitely a surreal moment,” Toppin said on Wednesday about Big Blue Madness. “I’m excited to play in front of the fans.”
Oscar Tshiebwe, who transferred from West Virginia during the middle of last season, was also robbed of the preseason event in 2020. Always smiling, the big man could hardly contain his excitement level regarding his first-ever Big Blue Madness experience.
“It was amazing,” Tshiebwe said. “I’ve never experienced something like that before. I had a lot of fun out there. I danced a little bit. It was great to see the fans, how they came to support.”
Graduate transfer Kellan Grady has played more college basketball games and scored more points than John Calipari has ever had in a player at Kentucky. However, his time at Davidson was slightly different than it is has been as a Wildcat–bigger crowds, electric atmospheres.
Big Blue Madness was a great trial run for what his first home game will be like at Rupp.
“You just kind of have an idea that it’s a really exciting event with a ton of excitement for fans. It absolutely fulfilled my expectations and even surpassed (them),” Grady told the media. “It was a lot of fun to be out there in front of 20,000 people in a fun basketball type of atmosphere. Just being with the teammates and everything… Very excited to be able to play in an official game at Rupp.”