On Monday, it became real when the Cats found out for certain they would be making a school-record fifth straight NCAA Tournament appearance.
"We obviously overcame some adversity throughout the season that has us prepared for the tournament," Matthew Mitchell said. "I'm really proud of our players, and really, really excited about the opportunity to play in another NCAA Tournament."
UK (24-8) was tabbed a No. 3 seed in the Notre Dame regional and will face No. 14 Wright State (26-8) in the first round at 11 a.m. in Memorial Coliseum on Saturday. The winner will advance to face either No. 6 Syracuse or No. 11 Chattanooga on Monday at 6:30 p.m.
"We don't know anything about Wright State, but it's a 40-minute big game," DeNesha Stallworth said. "Obviously anybody can win the game, but we just have to play hard and play together. That's been our key to success so we're just going to keep that going."
The Cats learned their fate at a watch party on the same floor where they will begin their tournament run and were joined by hundreds of their biggest fans. Afterward, Mitchell took the microphone to say thank you and make a humble request.
"What would really be huge for us Saturday morning at 11 o'clock: Get up early and get you a good breakfast and bring about 10 or 12 folks in here and let's pack Memorial Coliseum," Mitchell said.
While fans are recruiting friends to join them for UK's first-round game, Mitchell and his coaching staff will be hard at work trying to make sure the Cats have a second game in Memorial on Monday.
"You just start trying to figure out how you're going to prepare and looking at the game times," Mitchell said. "That's where my mind always goes, is you start trying to get a game plan together for your first opponent."
The players may have admitted they know little about the Raiders, but Mitchell has a relationship with Wright State's head coach, Mike Bradbury.
"I sent him a text yesterday," Mitchell said. "It was such a big win for him yesterday and to beat Green Bay and to get into the tournament. He and I share a bond of being former Morehead State coaches, so I've known him a long time and was happy for him."
Wright State -- making its first-ever NCAA appearance -- is averaging an impressive 84.0 points -- fourth nationally -- and is led by junior guard Kim Dennings, who is scoring 22.7 points per game. The Raiders are also first nationally in turnover margin, forcing 22.1 opponent miscues per game.
If UK advances past Wright State, plenty of intrigue awaits the Cats.
Syracuse was ranked for five straight weeks early in the season, while Chattanooga is receiving the most votes of any unranked team in the AP poll having won 25 in a row. In the Sweet 16, a potential rematch with second-seeded Baylor looms.
"I hope we're playing at the time we should be playing and that's in the Sweet 16 and that's all I'm really worried about," Mitchell said. "We need to try to really prepare well for Wright State because they'll be hungry and want to win. It'll be interesting in some ways if that matchup occurred."
His players of course share the same sentiment, but they'd like to see the game decided a little more quickly than it was in UK's thrilling four-overtime win in December.
"One of the fans came up to me after and said hopefully it's not four overtimes this time. Four overtimes, that's a whole other half," Bria Goss said. "It's a long season. We're not trying to do that again."
There's a long way to go before the Cats will start thinking about that, but they has reason to be confident heading into the tournament.
UK boasts wins over No. 1 seeds Tennessee and South Carolina -- two of the eight Southeastern Conference teams to make the field -- as well as No. 3 Louisville. The Cats are playing their best basketball of the season to boot, coming within a possession of the SEC Tournament title.
"We're going into this tournament with a lot of confidence and poise," Stallworth said. "Just playing together is really our focus right now. I think that we're going to really come in here and play with a lot of heart, and play with a purpose."
The Cats have now had eight days to recover from that heartbreaking 71-70 defeat. After taking some time off, UK has returned to practice. Mitchell has liked what he's seen to this point.
"What I've seen was a really hungry group came back and really excited to practice every day," Mitchell said. "... We've had a lot of fun together and make practice fun and just doing everything we can to try and bring this team together at the right time. It's the most important time of the year right now and it's here. We need to perform well."