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October 10, 2008

Kentucky getting season off to early start

Ready for basketball season to start? Kentucky sure is.

While most schools are a week away from putting on their versions of Midnight Madness or holding their first practice, Kentucky will serve up "Big Blue Madness" on Friday night in front of a capacity crowd of 23,000 fans at Rupp Arena.

The NCAA doesn't allow practice to begin officially until Oct. 17, but the Wildcats are taking advantage of a rule that allows two hours of team workouts per week beginning on Sept. 15. This week's time will go toward "Big Blue Madness."

A handful of other schools have followed suit. West Virginia holds "Mountaineer Madness" on Friday night, and Illinois and Marshall have similar events on Saturday. By moving the dates up, those schools will have a bigger stage and could get a leg up on recruiting. Because they are holding the events a week earlier than most schools, they won't have to compete with other programs to play host to recruits. Kentucky is expecting at least 12 prospects to be on hand.

No school may generate more interest for its Midnight Madness than Kentucky. The 23,000 tickets, which are free, were distributed within 40 minutes. The event will be televised live in Lexington and also can be seen on the school's Web site.

Kentucky fans are eager for their first glimpse at five new players. The Wildcats added two four-star freshmen (point guard DeAndre Liggins and small forward Darius Miller), two junior college transfers (point guard Kevin Galloway and power forward Josh Harrellson) and Hampton transfer Matt Pilgrim.

Everyone outside of Pilgrim, who won't be eligible until next season, is expected to contribute immediately. The Wildcats lost two (guards Ramel Bradley and Joe Crawford) of their three leading scorers from last season, and starting guard Derrick Jasper transferred to UNLV.

During coach Billy Gillispie's first season at the helm, Kentucky struggled through the non-conference portion of the schedule and also was hit with some major injuries. But the Wildcats rallied by winning 11 of their last 13 regular-season games and snagging an NCAA bid. The Wildcats fell to Marquette in the first round.

Big man Patrick Patterson, who earned SEC Co-Freshman of the Year honors, and starting wing Jodie Meeks missed a combined 24 games because of injuries, and neither played in the postseason. Both are considered healthy after undergoing offseason surgeries.

This could be the last year we see events like these this early. The National Association of Basketball Coaches has told the NCAA that it would support a ban on early Madness events. Jim Haney, the NABC's executive director, said recently that he expects the NCAA to make it a rule that all schools hold their Madness events on the same day starting next season.

Andrew Skwara is the college basketball editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at askwara@rivals.com.

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