As the first win turned into five and five turned into 10 and 10 turned into 20, No. 1 Kentucky's undefeated crusade crossed checkpoint after checkpoint. There was Kansas in Game 3. (Wildcats won by 32.) There was Texas in Game 8. (Wildcats won by 12.) There was North Carolina in Game 11. (Wildcats won by 14.) And there was Louisville in Game 13. (Wildcats won by eight.)
Kentucky arrived at and then passed each test thrown its way, but the same refrain remained:
"Yeah, well, wait until the 'Cats travel to Florida on Feb. 7."
Game 22 at the Gators. Kentucky won by seven.
Is it safe now to officially begin undefeated watch?
Yes. Yes, it is.
Through the first 22 games of the season, Kentucky has met and answered every challenge thrown at it. There have been hiccups since entering SEC play, including the overtime and double-overtime survivals against Ole Miss and Texas A&M, but Florida was the barometer. Even though the Gators have struggled this season, they have consistently thwarted Kentucky, winning three of their previous four meetings.
And the O'Dome has also been an issue since John Calipari arrived in Lexington, with Kentucky winning just two of its five games in Gainesville.
So Saturday night's 68-61 win at Florida might not have been the mandate victory everyone was expecting, but it was convincing nonetheless. Aaron Harrison had 23 points. Freshman big man Karl-Anthony Towns had 19 points and eight rebounds, dominating Florida in the second half. Willie Cauley-Stein, in addition to his freakish monster dunk, created matchup problems all night long.
Kentucky got a zero-point night from freshman Tyler Ulis and was without his classmate, Trey Lyles, who remained home because of an illness.
And the Wildcats still won.
Now that Florida is in the rearview mirror, Kentucky's run at college basketball's first undefeated season since Indiana in 1975-76 can officially commence.
This was the game that Kentucky had to get over to reach that point. Just like Wichita State had to get past Indiana State last season on its way to entering the NCAA tournament at 34-0. Just like Saint Joseph's had to get past Rhode Island on the way to entering the Atlantic 10 tournament with a 27-0 mark in 2003-04.
Every team that has carried a zero in the loss column into its conference tournament or the NCAA tournament had one in-conference test it needed to pass in order to continue on with the March.
For Kentucky, that was Florida. And now it's time to start looking ahead. Next week's road trip to LSU, a team with a big and physical front line, will not be easy, but this is a flawed Tigers team. LSU has already lost to Missouri, Mississippi State and Auburn this season.
(In case you're not up to date with the SEC standings, those three teams are among the bottom five in the league.)
Look, if you're No. 1 and undefeated and have "Kentucky" on your chest, you're going to get everyone's best shot every night. That goes without saying. But the teams that can contend with the Wildcats' depth, talent and defense are very few and far between this season. And it's apparent that none reside in the SEC.
Bring on LSU. Bring on South Carolina and Tennessee and Auburn and the rest of the also-rans in the SEC. Florida was the litmus test to see if anyone could topple Kentucky before the start of the NCAA tournament.
The Gators failed.
Now everyone can move forward and see just how close Kentucky can get to Indiana's place in college basketball history.