A Saturday matchup with Florida marks but another step on a memorable journey, but this step merits some special attention.
With Kentucky a win away from completing the first perfect regular season by a power-conference team since 1975-76, even John Calipari stopped for a moment to think about what it's taken to get here.
"I'm not reflecting back right now, I'm looking forward," Coach Cal said. "But I will tell you for them to stay the course is a challenge in itself here."
With each win, the hype with which the top-ranked Wildcats (30-0, 17-0 Southeastern Conference) began the season has only intensified. Even so, they've remained as one.
"To stay into each other, to not listen and let the clutter affect who you are and how you play, it's amazing," Calipari said. "I mean, you got guys that aren't worried about Player of the Year, yet if they were playing 35 minutes a game and getting the ball every time, they'd be Player of the Year. They're not worried about it. They're just playing basketball. They're just trying to play for each other."
With the eyes of the college basketball world trained on Lexington for Saturday's 2 p.m. ET matchup with the Gators (15-15, 8-9 SEC), the Cats are choosing to keep that attitude. Like Coach Cal, they'll save most of their reflection for later.
"I think that's one of those things that's gonna hit you later," Willie Cauley-Stein said, "maybe not at the time just because, you know, it's not gonna really mean a lot at the time 'cause you still got other stuff--like after the season's over, a month from now, when you look back at how fast it went by."
The speed with which this season has passed was a common theme as UK held its normal pregame media availability. It seems, everyone agreed, like the Cats' preseason trip to the Bahamas only just ended.
"The season has flown by," Calipari said. "I can still remember me using the Bahamas, having a bunch of wide-eyed freshmen not knowing what in the world to expect that played well down there and started feeling good about themselves."
Calipari pointed to that trip as a proving ground for the platoon system that has helped carry Kentucky to 30-0. Taking full advantage of their unmatched depth, the Cats overwhelmed professional opponents even with Cauley-Stein and Trey Lyles sidelined by injury.
"We'd have team meetings and (Coach Cal would) be like, 'This is crazy,' " Cauley-Stein said. " 'We don't even have our whole team here and we still look really good,' and how excited he was for everybody to be back and the season to get going."
The excitement was justified.
The Cats have charged through the regular season, never losing their grip on the top spot in both major polls. They lead the nation comfortably in scoring margin at 21.4 and boast a defense that's allowed fewer points per possession than any since kenpom.com began measuring the statistic in 2001-02.
Mix all that in with the cohesiveness and chemistry of this group and it's clear that something unique is going on.
"I told them, you know, we have limited time together," Calipari said. "I told my staff, 'Every minute you can spend with these guys you better spend with them. I mean, when you get to the (Wildcat Coal) Lodge, we'll go to meals - let's just do everything together because this thing's going to wind down."
Saturday will be Senior Day for Sam Malone, Brian Long and Tod Lanter. Though none of the three has a regular role, the fact remains that this will be the last time this group plays together at Rupp Arena as currently constituted.
"It's very special because as a team we've been through a lot together this year," Tyler Ulis said. "It's going to be our last time playing at Rupp together. It'll probably be memorable. Last time Tod, Sam and (Brian) will play in Rupp. It'll be fun to play."
Whether the three seniors start remains to be seen. Cauley-Stein expects to be electric no matter what.
"It's probably going to be really good energy," Cauley-Stein said. "But it's going to be tough too at the same time, so it's not something that you can just take lightly and stroll in there and think you're going to win. You know, we're going to have to come to play."
A month ago, the Gators gave Kentucky all it could handle in a 68-61 Cats win in spite of playing much of the night without Michael Frazier II. The sharp-shooting guard is expected to be available on Saturday.
"Well, he spreads the court," Calipari said, "and what they're doing in their pick and rolls is just keeping everybody away from the basket, trying to get rim baskets or 3s or moving the ball from there into driving. Billy's (Donovan) done a great job with his team."
Just a year ago, it was Florida going for an unbeaten run through SEC play against Kentucky, but the Gators are now viewed as little more than a roadblock en route to an even more impressive feat. The Cats don't see it that way at all.
"That's how you get beat," Cauley-Stein said. "If you think about it like as a whole like that, you just gotta take it one step at a time and let nature take its course."
The Wildcats, after allowing Vanderbilt to score the game's first basket, reeled off 16 straight points to build a big lead.
Things wouldn't be so easy though.
"Sometimes when you get off to a hot start, it all kind of unravels on you, you don't get it back," Matthew Mitchell said.
It unraveled in the form of a 23-8 run by Vanderbilt to close the first half. The spurt gave the Commodores a 25-24 lead heading to the break. The Cats made just 3-of-14 shots to allow Vandy to charge back into the SEC Tournament second-round game.
"I think we lost our defensive intensity because we weren't scoring on the offensive end," Bria Goss said. "We had to refocus and regroup at halftime."
That's precisely what the sixth-seeded Cats (22-8) did en route to a 67-61 victory on Thursday night. UK would build a lead of as large as 12 points in the second half, coming alive offensively in the process.
At the center of it all was Jennifer O'Neill.
The senior guard - who has three times played on teams that lost in the SEC Tournament finals - had three points and three turnovers in shooting 1 of 8 from the field in the first half. After the break, she would score 16 of her game-high 19 points.
"I was more aggressive," O'Neill said. "I told my team, I apologized, I was settling for jump shots instead of attacking the basket or getting fouled or getting other people involved. That was really it, just changed my mindset."
That mindset spread to the defensive end as well, including on a vital charge she drew with less than four minutes remained. At that point, Vandy had climbed to within 58-51 and Jasmine Jenkins was driving to the basket intent on cutting the lead to five, but O'Neill made a play.
"I tell you the biggest thing for Jennifer right now is she is affecting the game defensively," Mitchell said. "When we're good, she really, really turns up the defense and does a great job. Bria is always there, always a rock defensively. Jennifer has become that, too, for us in this time of success for our team. That's what we'll need from her more than anything (Friday), just a real focus."
Third-seeded Mississippi State (26-5) will be the next test of that focus on Friday at approximately 9:30 p.m. ET. Kentucky took down the Bulldogs in double overtime three weeks ago in Lexington behind 42 points and a buzzer beater by Makayla Epps.
The game was actually somewhat reminiscent of Thursday's win over Vandy with the way it went back and forth.
"Well, we really were clicking in the first half, built a sizable lead," Mitchell said. "I remember we lost focus there at halftime. The first five minutes of the second half was really dominated by Mississippi State. Went back to an 11-point lead, then they came back again. We played some really good basketball against them in stretches, and they played some really good basketball against us in stretches."
With a short turnaround, the Cats will work to maximize their own stretches of good basketball.
"We'll just mentally prepare," Mitchell said. "We'll ask for tremendous focus and we'll ask for them to understand what they need to do. That's the responsibility part of what they really need to do tomorrow night to win, then go out and execute it."
Coming to Kentucky as walk-on, the Scituate, Mass., native was there every step of the way as the Wildcats went from national champions in 2012 to first-round NIT losers in 2013 to within one win of another title in 2014.
"Freshman year I thought it was going to be like that every year, then the next with that NIT--it was totally different from the first year," Malone said. "But we just stuck with our game plan of what we were doing as far as the program goes, and we're back to where we want to be."
With UK sitting atop the polls with a record of 30-0 entering Senior Day for Malone and classmates Brian Long and Sam Malone, that might be an understatement.
The Cats are a game away from completing the first unbeaten season for a power-conference team since Indiana accomplished the feat in 1975-76. Malone and Long have already been a part of a pair of Final Four teams and they clearly have designs on making it three within the next month.
"So far it's been great," said Long, a Dumont, N.J. native. "We've had two real good years and this year the story's not over yet. It's been a great ride all four years. Just appreciate everything and it's been real fun."
The three seniors have had an inside view of the program that's been at the center of college basketball. They been a part of some downs, to be sure, but more often than not they've watched John Calipari mold groups of young stars into cohesive units.
"I think that he just gets people focused on buying into the team, like he says, and everyone's worried about winning," Malone said. "If we win it's been shown that good things will happen for everyone, so trusting in that is really how it works."
Even more than with that title team, the 2014-15 Wildcats are proof of how well Coach Cal's approach can work. Nine McDonald's All-Americans, Willie Cauley-Stein and in-state high-school stars Derek Willis and Dominique Hawkins have put team above self and reaped the rewards beginning with a preseason island trip.
"I think it started in the Bahamas, but we're at the point where I think we know what we're doing is working really well, so why would we change anything," Malone said. "You know what I mean? Just keep trusting each other. There's no reason to do anything we haven't been doing and I think that's really been working out great for us."
None of the three seniors have had a regular in-game role this season or in any prior year, but don't tell them or their teammates they haven't been a part of it all.
"Coming in and seeing the results and seeing all these people succeed after they leave here," Long said. "Just being part of it and seeing everyone succeed has been the best part for me."
For Lanter, that's been extra special.
The Lexington, Ky., native is the son of former UK player Bo Lanter and a lifelong Kentucky fan. He started his college career at Gulf Coast State Community College, but elected to transfer home and take a shot at becoming a Wildcat. His gamble paid off.
"I've grown up around this program," Lanter said. I've seen its ups and downs. I've seen the ins and outs of it through--I've had a little bit of insight with my dad being here, stories and things, and I've had personal relationships with past players. So I've gotten a little bit more of an insight than most typical fans have.
But even Lanter has had moments when he forgets he's in a place he always dreamed of being. It's then that he gives himself a little dose of perspective.
"You get caught up in the ups and downs of a season and the ins and outs of practice and things and you sometimes lose track of where you actually are and what you're getting to go through and how many people would kill to be able to be in this position," Lanter said. "I try to take the time to take it all in."
He'll be doing plenty of that on Saturday when he participates in Senior Day activities. Lanter has long dreamed of walking through that hoop with his picture on it and standing alongside his family for the playing of "My Old Kentucky Home."
"Now I'm going to have to be a part of it and I'm sure it'll be tough, but at the same time it's part of the process and I'm thankful to be there," Lanter said.
The question then becomes whether the three will get the start against Florida. Malone showed his usual humor in answering that question.
"Unless 12 other people get a crippling flu, I don't think we're going to start," Malone said. "But we'll see what happens."
"We started the season of the goal of becoming a great team, and that being defined by this team becoming the best that this team can be," Mitchell said.
Wins and losses have never figured into the equation, at least not directly. Nor has Kentucky's performance in the postseason. That doesn't mean those things don't have a role as the Wildcats head to North Little Rock, Ark., for the Southeastern Conference Tournament.
"I think it would be significant to get in the mix for a championship," Mitchell said. "I think it would be very significant to win the SEC Tournament. It would be a great sign that they have given it their best."
Significant, not to mention especially meaningful to this group.
UK - which enters as the No. 6 seed - has advanced to the finals of the SEC Tournament in four of the last five seasons but never won. Fifth-year senior Jennifer O'Neill has been a part of three of those trips, and classmates Jennifer O'Neill, Azia Bishop and Jelleah Sidney two each.
"I think they'll be hungry to go down there and win it," Mitchell said. "Especially the veterans. We have gotten very close. I think the veterans have been to two championship games. It's a big-time tournament. It's a big one to win. We would be very proud to win it and we're going to try to do that."
The Cats (21-8, 10-6 SEC) will open their title bid at approximately 9:30 p.m. ET on Thursday against either No. 11 Vanderbilt or No. 14 Alabama. They will also do so in a much better place than if the tournament had started a week and a half prior.
On Feb. 23, UK had just lost its third straight game. Sensing their team was about to "go off the cliff," those four seniors - led by O'Neill - called a meeting with their head coach to ask him to be more involved in demanding focus and intensity from his team.
"We're not the most talented team around," Mitchell said. "We're talented enough that when we play extremely hard and we're ultra-competitive, we're talented enough to win. We're also talented enough that if we don't compete, if we're not ultra-competitive and we don't play extremely hard, we can lose to anybody. So there's really no in between with the team."
With no in between, Mitchell has changed up practice and even implemented game-speed drills during pregame warmups. He's also abandoned his customary spot in the locker room before games in favor of running the team through those drills. The Cats have responded by winning two straight, including Sunday's upset of then-No. 2 South Carolina.
"For me, it's been fun because I'm sort of bored back in the locker room, staring at the board," Mitchell said. "You've written the words and you know what you want to say and you're just back there by yourself and so it was great."
Mitchell will be on the court again Thursday night helping his team get ready. If anything, he'll be even more eager to be there.
"I think it's a really exciting tournament, the SEC Tournament," Mitchell said. "I think it's very difficult to win and we've had a chance several times to win it and we'd love to taste victory in that tournament. It would really be a big accomplishment if we could win it, so we have to take them one game at a time obviously and no matter who it is, Vanderbilt or Alabama, it'll be a tough test. We will do everything we can to get prepared."
Though UK will be preparing for a game with winning in mind, the ultimate goal remains the same as the one the Cats had to start the season.
"I just talk to them about doing the things that we need from them to be successful and that is to have an edge to us, a competitiveness to us, playing defense for each other, getting on the boards, things like that," Mitchell said. "We'll go down there with the intention of winning, but I'll talk with them more about the process than I will about whatever result we get."
Almost a month after he famously told the Wildcats he wanted them to lose at LSU, Coach Cal had an interesting reaction when UK found itself down nine with barely nine minutes left at Georgia.
"I hope we go down 10," Calipari told his team.
Just like against the Tigers in UK's last close game, there was a reason Calipari was talking that way.
"We need to find out who's who, who's going to make a play, who's going to do stuff, who's going to play," Calipari said. "I kept saying, 'Scared money don't make no money.' "
There no fear in the way the top-ranked Cats (30-0, 17-0 Southeastern Conference) closed out the Bulldogs in a 72-64 win, especially not after Georgia was up six with five minutes to go.
"We're a really together team, so we knew we just had to lean on each other and depend on each other and that's what we did," Aaron Harrison said. "Players came through."
Harrison, unsurprisingly, topped the list.
The clutch sophomore guard scored 14 of his 16 points in the second half, including five points in a decisive and game-ending 16-2 run.
"Aaron, of course everyone knows what he's going to do in a big game," said Andrew Harrison, who started the run with a 3-pointer. "And Karl(-Anthony Towns), Karl stepped up great down the stretch."
Similar to that close call at LSU, a mistake by Towns seemed it might end UK's bid for an unbeaten season. Backing down in the post, Towns extended his arm attacking the basket rather than kick to a wide-open Tyler Ulis at the top of the key. The result was the fourth foul on Towns with 5:50 to go.
"They double-teamed him and he had Tyler Ulis wide open and he ball faked," Calipari said. "Why? And then he charged the guy. Throw it to the - don't be a hero. That's the thing he's learning. Easy play. Quit trying - he is so good, you don't have to do crazy stuff. Other guys do. They have to do crazy stuff to stand out. You don't. Why are you doing it?"
A little more than two minutes later, with UK on a 6-0 run to tie the game, Towns checked back in and Calipari called for the offense to run through the 6-foot-11 freshman. He promptly scored seven of the Cats' next eight points to finish a dominant 19-point, seven-rebound performance.
"That's how much I think of him," Calipari said. "I know he has the courage and he has the skill and the ability, and that's what we did: We went to him late."
But if not for UK's defense, Towns' offense would have mattered little.
In building the lead, Georgia had a stretch of seven straight possessions with points and later three straight. It was around the five-minute mark that Towns spoke up and said the Cats needed three stops in a row to climb back into the game.
Andrew Harrison, who scored 12 points and steadied a UK offense that committed a season-low three turnovers - raised him to five.
"I was looking at my jersey number," he said. "Nah, I mean, we just wanted to get as many stops as long as we could. That's what we did."
On cue, the Cats - with the help of two missed front ends of one-and-ones - held Georgia scoreless on six straight trips, much to the chagrin of a raucous Stegeman Coliseum crown.
"They're starting to be empowered," Calipari said of his team. "They're starting. Last year, it was about this time they said, 'Alright, we can listen to everyone make excuses for us, tell us it's not me, personally, it's somebody else. Or, we can come together and do this.' And they did it. This year, right now, again, I don't want them relying so much on me. I want them to be about themselves."
The Cats are accepting that challenge, whether that's in games like the five straight blowouts that preceded Tuesday or a hard-fought battle like the one Georgia gave them.
"It definitely builds confidence to know that we can win a close game 'cause we have guys that have been through this, and even our younger guys are mentally tough and ready for it," Aaron Harrison said.