LEXINGTON, Ky. -- In a dark, covered walkway leading to a stage at Rupp Arena, the newest crop of Kentucky basketball stars pace back and forth, hidden from the fans.
Big Blue Madness is nearing its crescendo in Lexington, with this night marking the official start of practice for the Wildcats -- and, for four freshmen, the beginning of their careers.
Coach John Calipari wants to make sure they're prepared.
"Have you seen it out there?" Calipari yells, hurrying down the corridor to catch up with his squad. No one speaks.
"I'm serious," Calipari says. "Have you guys seen it out there?"
Center Willie Cauley-Stein peeks through a crevice in the tarp, turns toward his teammates and widens his eyes.
"Whoa!" he says.
Other players clap their hands or take deep breaths as they gaze into Rupp, which is filled beyond capacity with nearly 24,000 fans, many of whom camped out for 55 hours one month earlier just to get tickets.
Flashes from cameras illuminate the darkened stands, and shrieks ping-pong off the walls as images project onto the court, which -- at the cost of at least $250,000 -- has been transformed into a makeshift video board.
"Three more minutes, guys," someone screams into the tunnel. "You're on in three minutes."
Freshman Nerlens Noel backs away from his teammates and jogs in place, like a boxer dancing in the ring before the bell. Cauley-Stein practices the shimmy he'll perform on stage moments later, and point guard Ryan Harrow bends over to stretch.
Long known for his poise in the spotlight, even Calipari seems a bit unnerved, screaming above the noise as he rehearses the speech he's scribbled on a folded piece of paper. The coach borrows a pen to scratch out a sentence before adding another.
The voice comes again: "OK, guys. You're on!"
A machine spews smoke down the staircase and into the tunnel as a Snoop Dogg songs boom over the loudspeaker. One by one, the newest Wildcats climb the steps sheepishly as they're introduced to their disciples.
Here's guard Archie Goodwin, just two months removed from his 18th birthday, yet already labeled "the most NBA-ready" player on the roster.
Now meet Cauley-Stein, the 7-footer who doubled as a football star at his high school in Kansas, where he rarely played before more than a few hundred fans.
This is Alex Poythress, a studious, soft-spoken forward who posted a 3.9 grade-point average in high school.
The Wildcats high-five fans, do a quick dance to the entrance songs they handpicked and then walk down another flight of steps and onto the court. As one of the final players introduced, Noel -- the top-ranked prospect in America and the face of yet another loaded UK recruiting class -- watches most of the scene from the tunnel.
Seconds before his name is called, the forward with "UK" shaved into the back of his high-top fade is asked whether he has any butterflies. Noel shrugs as he approaches the stairs.
"A little bit," he says, "but not as bad as I expected. I'm anxious more than anything. I'm ready."
Noel and his teammates don't have any choice. They have to be ready.
Louisville, Kansas and Ohio State have high expectations in 2012-13 thanks to the return of key veterans who helped their teams reach last year's Final Four. And from 2009 to '11, an upperclassman led North Carolina, Duke and Connecticut to the NCAA title.
But at Kentucky, the model is different.
Calipari has amassed a 102-14 record in three seasons in Lexington mainly because of freshmen who spent just one year in college before turning pro. The Wildcats reached the Elite Eight in 2010 and the Final Four in 2011 before winning the national title -- the school's first since 1998 -- in New Orleans this past spring.
All six of the top players from the championship squad, including three freshmen, were selected in the NBA draft, a scenario that would cause most programs to crumble the following season. But at Kentucky, fans genuinely believe the Cats can win another title this season.
And Calipari does, too -- even with the youngest team in America.
Four of UK's top seven players are freshmen who could leave for the NBA next spring, and sophomore forward Kyle Wiltjer, who played sparingly last season, is also expected to be drafted.
In the days leading up to this past Friday's Midnight Madness and the official start of practice, the Wildcats do their best not to let the situation become a burden. But on this night at Rupp Arena, it's hard not to feel the pressure -- especially as Calipari summons former stars such as Ron Mercer, Derek Anderson and "Wah Wah" Jones onto the hardwood to help hoist Kentucky's eight national championship banners into the rafters.
"They won a national championship last year," Cauley-Stein says. "Now it's expected in the people's eyes that we should win a national championship, too. We're a whole new team, though. We're all young. We don't know what's going to happen."
"I'm a little nervous," he says. "I'm sure we all are. But it's a good nervous. We knew what we were getting into."
Thursday: 10:40 a.m.
To flourish as a Kentucky basketball player, John Calipari told Alex Poythress he'd have to make some sacrifices. But Poythress never imagined that one of them would be missing an occasional lunch.
That's what happens this afternoon, when Poythress stops by the student union food court for a quick bite before class. Before he ever reaches the line for Chick-fil-A, Poythress is surrounded by a field-tripping talented-and-gifted class from Owen County Elementary School.
Poythress signs a notebook for one boy and a napkin for another. A little girl asks a stranger for a blank piece of paper for Poythress to autograph. Cellphone cases, T-shirts and notebooks are all fair game. So are pictures with the group's teachers.
Ten minutes pass before Poythress breaks free long enough to purchase 10 chicken nuggets and waffle fries. But as he sits down and takes a few bites, the students return with more things to sign. Poythress obliges but then realizes his class begins in seven minutes. He places his food back in the box and hurries from the building.
Rock-star treatment isn't unusual for athletes at high-profile programs such as Duke, North Carolina and Kansas. But the folks in Kentucky are known for taking things over the top.
On a common morning, as many as 10 to 15 fans wait outside the Wildcat Lodge dorm with memorabilia for players to sign before they head to campus. Today, as Poythress walks to class, two drivers honk their horns and whistle out the window as he crosses the street. Along the way, Poythress meets up with Cauley-Stein and Goodwin, who hardly notice the students trailing about 10 feet behind, taking pictures of them with their cellphones.
Poythress has autographed cars and motorcycles, and both he and Noel say they've scribbled their signatures on the bare skin of infant babies. Cauley-Stein has posed for pictures where the photographer's hands were shaking so bad that he could barely hold the camera.
"I would describe it like the movie 'Friday Night Lights,'" Cauley-Stein says. "People are so excited, they're nervous. Kentucky basketball is just so big to so many people."
The players don't seem to mind, even though nearly every autograph request is followed by talk of a national championship.
"I especially like signing for little kids," Poythress says. "You've got to make their day. If their day is made, my day is made. I enjoy seeing the smiles on their faces."
Poythress, Cauley-Stein and Goodwin take their seats in the back row of a class called CIS 101. A few weeks earlier, the professor grouped the students in pairs and told them to visit a campus organization about which they had preconceived beliefs to see whether their thoughts were true.
Goodwin and Poythress, who are reporting their findings to the class today, attended a Christian Student Fellowship meeting, where they sang songs and watched baptisms.
"Some of them started crying, including a few dudes," Goodwin says, shaking his head as the class snickers.
Cauley-Stein and his partner on the assignment sat in on a meeting of the Paranormal Study Organization. Cauley-Stein says he had hoped to join the students on a ghost hunt, but since "paranormal hour" is at 3 a.m., his schedule wouldn't allow it.
Even more than the pressure to bring home another title, Cauley-Stein says the hardest part about playing for Kentucky is finding time for schoolwork.
"It's overwhelming sometimes to try to balance out school with how serious basketball is," he says. "It's hard to do both. They're both day jobs. You've got to learn to deal with a lot of obligations."
One of those obligations is UK's annual media day, which almost always occurs the day before Big Blue Madness. Few programs have as big of a media following as the Wildcats, who often get more than 100 credential requests for a single game.
Wearing their practice jerseys, the players file into a meeting room in the Joe Craft Center at 2:25 p.m. After a quick talk by Calipari, DeWayne Peevy, the school's executive associate athletic director who oversees the media relations department, addresses the team.
His messages are simple.
"Sit on the front of your chair and keep both feet on the floor," Peevy says. "That way you command respect and the cameras won't get in your face. If you lean back, they're going to lean forward. If you lean forward in your chair, they'll move back."
Players are reminded to look reporters in the eye, and Peevy suggests they enter the hourlong session with three things in mind they want to talk about. He instructs them not to discuss the NCAA inquiry surrounding Noel, who has yet to be deemed eligible. (Calipari says he isn't worried.) And he tells the Wildcats to brag about their teammates but to choose theirs words carefully.
"Be your brother's keeper," Peevy says. "You're not an expert except for the things you know about yourself."
Players gasp when Peevy informs them that more than 100 media members are waiting for them in the practice gym.
"Have fun with it, guys," Peevy says. "You're creating your own headlines today."
Friday: 7:55 p.m.
Big Blue Madness is under way at Rupp Arena, where Kentucky women's coach Matt Mitchell is providing entertainment by dancing to MC Hammer's "2 Legit 2 Quit" before his team's scrimmage.
Fans are amused -- the coach sports sunglasses, parachute pants and a sleeveless, tiger-print jacket -- but Mitchell isn't whom most of them came to see.
The true stars of the show are still backstage.
With Kentucky's locker room construction project still about a month from completion, the Wildcats conduct stretching exercises in a curtained-off area in the bowels of the arena.
Players lie on gym mats that rest atop a concrete surface. A training table is nestled into one corner for taping, and there's a refrigerator across the room. The toiletries and street clothes that would usually occupy a locker are stuffed in gym bags strewn about the floor.
At 8:15, a member of UK's marketing department enters the area one last time, reminding the Wildcats not to walk onto the stage until their names are called. He encourages them to soak in the applause by waving or dancing to their selected songs.
"This is your time," he says. "Take as much of it as you want."
Written in blue ink on a nearby dry-erase board are bullet points to remember during tonight's scrimmage.
• No hard fouls
• Play basketball
As the 8:30 introductions draw closer, the room is mostly silent. Poythress sits stone-faced in a chair, staring toward the ground. Goodwin rehearses his dance moves, and Cauley-Stein checks his cellphone.
Noel brandishes a hair pick from his gym bag and coifs his high-top fade. NC State transfer Ryan Harrow, the heir apparent at point guard, approaches the freshman to gauge his anxiety.
"You good, man? You nervous?" Harrow asks him.
Noel shakes his head.
"I'm fine, man," he says. "I'm fine."
Noel is last in line as players leave the dressing area and head toward the tunnel that leads to the court. Before heading out, though, he breaks away from his teammates after spotting Kevin Massey about 20 feet to the right of the Wildcats' path.
Massey was a healthy, three-sport standout at his Indianapolis High School before doctors discovered he had a brain tumor at age 16. Calipari flew to meet Massey -- a die-hard Kentucky fan -- after hearing about his situation in 2010. Massey survived the ordeal and is now in a wheelchair, but that didn't stop Calipari from offering him a job with the team.
Massey is in his first season as Kentucky's student manager.
"What's up, Kevin," Noel says, squatting so he can look Massey in the eye. "You gonna be watchin' tonight? Everything I do out there is gonna be for you. The blocks, the dunks, the shots I make they're all going to be for you."
Noel hurries to rejoin his teammates. Within 15 minutes, the Wildcats have been introduced and are now on the court. Calipari takes the microphone and addresses the crowd.
"You people are craaazzzy!" he says.
Judging by their roar, the fans take it as a compliment. Calipari calls former players onto the court to help raise a set of eight championship banners that now includes one from 2012. Next is the event everyone is anxious for.
It's tough for any team -- even ones with future first-rounders -- to look good during a public intrasquad game in October. Plays haven't been installed, chemistry is lacking and players get nervous and winded. Still, the Wildcats do their best.
Wiltjer scores 19 points, and Harrow and Poythress add 18 each. But the highlight of the night comes when Cauley-Stein throws down a two-handed dunk over Noel. The play draws on-air praise from ESPN color commentator Jimmy Dykes.
"Willie Cauley-Stein," Dykes says, "could be the steal of the 2012 recruiting class."
While Noel, Poythress and Goodwin were all listed in the top 15 nationally, Cauley-Stein was ranked as the 40th-best prospect in the Class of 2012 by ESPN.com. A handful of opponents he faced at Olathe (Kan.) Northwest High School even labeled him "soft."
That hardly seems to be the case these days. Calipari says Cauley-Stein has gained 25 pounds since arriving in Lexington. His potential, the coach says, is limitless.
"[Calipari] keeps saying, 'You have no idea how good you're going to be,'" Cauley-Stein says. "He keeps reminding me of that. It's beat into my head. He says everyone has something about them that's going to peak out, but I haven't even touched what I can do. It's done a lot of my confidence."
Noel finishes with just two points but flourishes on defense. Some analysts have likened him to former No. 1 draft pick Anthony Davis, but Noel says the comparisons are unfair.
"I'm not him," Noel says. "I'm my own player. I'm going to focus on what I do best."
After a brief team meeting, players pack their belongings and leave the gym quickly. Some, such as Noel and Goodwin, are hosting recruits. Harrow heads to dinner with his family at the Hyatt Regency.
The Cats' first practice is the next morning at 10.
"It's about to start rolling," Harrow says. "Everything now is for real."
Saturday: 10 a.m.
Shortly after the beginning of Kentucky's morning workout, Calipari blows his whistle and makes a peculiar request: He wants to hear his players scream.
Forty-eight hours earlier, at media day, Calipari expressed concern about the Wildcats' toughness, so now he's asking them to yell as loud as they can while snatching a rebound off the backboard. Poythress goes first, and his roar is hardly intimidating.
"Oh my God, Alex," Calipari says, turning to address the rest of his team. "I want to hear your lion, not your lamb."
Top-five recruits such as Andrew and Aaron Harrison and James Young -- all of whom committed to Kentucky this fall -- watch from the sideline with a handful of other top prospects.
For the most part, Calipari is encouraging and upbeat.
"That's all right," he yells after a bad pass leads to a turnover. "We're still getting to know each other."
Even in the first practice, two things Cal won't tolerate are laziness and showboating.
"You get nothing out of this if you go half-speed," he yells as the Wildcats work on their transition game. "You think every single team we play isn't going to go as hard as they can? If you can't give 100 percent, then take yourself off the court."
Later, Goodwin draws Calipari's ire when he fails to defend Jon Hood on an easy layup.
"Why didn't you block that?" the head coach says to Goodwin. "You can't just give him a layup. He's not going to miss a layup. We just lost the game. We're trying to win. Everything we do is about winning."
The workout ends at 12:15, and the Wildcats drive to Calipari's house, where they'll feast on ribs, shrimp, macaroni and cheese, and corn before falling asleep. Harrow says there are enough beds and couches for the entire squad.
They return to the gym at 4 for another practice. By the end of the workout, Noel is so fatigued that he misses eight straight left-handed hook shots three feet from the basket. Calipari waits patiently until he makes one and never says a word.
Sitting barefoot in his office nearly an hour later, Calipari says that he can't think of many teams in the country the Wildcats could beat right now. The coach chuckles when someone points out that he makes that comment every October.
"Yeah," he says, "but this year I mean it."
Each of Calipari's previous Kentucky teams had a handful of veterans to provide leadership and guidance for the standout freshmen. Patrick Patterson helped John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins in 2009. Darius Miller, Josh Harrellson and DeAndre Liggins were there for Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones in 2011.
Jones and Doron Lamb returned in 2012 and were two of the top players on the championship squad. This team has no such player other than Wiltjer, who averaged just 11 minutes a game last season.
These freshmen are more than capable of leading Kentucky back to the Final Four, Calipari says. But don't be surprised if their path there is a bit different.
"We're young," Calipari says, "but I won't ever use that as an excuse. It just means we're going to look like a November team in November. I can handle that.
"I just hope we don't look like a November team in March."