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Willie Cauley-Stein and the Wildcats will look to complete a perfect regular season on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Willie Cauley-Stein and the Wildcats will look to complete a perfect regular season on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
By no means is this the finish line.

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."

Sam Malone, Brian Long and Tod Lanter will participate in Senior Day activities on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Sam Malone, Brian Long and Tod Lanter will participate in Senior Day activities on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Sam Malone's first three college seasons couldn't have been much different.

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."


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  • Doc Savage: Notre Dame was a team most thought UK would blow away because of superior size; depth; and rugged defense. That read more
  • Frank: Why did you not include Tyler Ulis 3 point shot? read more
  • Jack: Great highlights!!! Love Tom doing the play-by-play read more
  • S Kelly: Would like to have seen the 3 by Ulis in these highlights...great game!! read more
  • Srinivas: We gave Notre dame more credit than what they deserved by some poor passing of the ball. We started playing read more
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  • Cathy henderson: go Big Blue! What a game! Fight to the finish! Making my mom proud! She was your biggest fan and read more
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