Kentucky Basketball: And Now For Something Completely Different

We interrupt your normal discussions of the academic/athletic dichotomy in college, NBA draft picks, arguments regarding the relative importance of national championships, and the latest debate of whether John Calipari is Satan incarnate or just the guy who runs into 7-11 to get Satan a pack of cigarettes, to bring you a topic that is both a crucially significant aspect of every UK game while simultaneously utterly devoid of any great significance or meaning.

These musings originated during the UK-West Virginia game (more on that a bit later) and continued to toss around in my head over the subsequent week.  I considered writing about it at that time, but decided to wait because in the aftermath of that Elite 8 loss there were more pertinant topics swirling around, what with the wondering of which players would enter the draft and the finding out of who the next batch of freshmen would be and the fretting over whether Calipari would join forces with LeBron James.  So I decided to wait until July to post this because you know - there's never anything UK-related to discuss in July. (Well, it sounded like a good idea at the time.)

This topic involves what to me is one of the most fascinating aspects of UK basketball over the last 20+ years.  An event that links and unites teams from the late 80's to the present more than any coach, player, or tournament run ever could.  An event that has occured in every game over the last 22 years or so.  I am speaking, of course, about the 749 consecutive game streak in which UK has hit a least one three point basket.  The question I ponder is, just how important is it?

First a little background information.  As I mentioned above the number of consecutive games played with at least one made 3 point basket currently stands at 749 games.  I believe the last time UK played a game in which it failed to make a 3 point shot was November 17, 1988 versus Seton Hall.

Kentucky's streak is third longest in the nation behind Vanderbilt (760 games) and UNLV (772 games).  Those two schools along with Princeton share the the double honor of having hit a three point shot in every single game since the shot was added in 1986.

I'd like to pause a moment and point out that despite giving Vandy and UNLV essentially a 2-season head start, UK is closing in on both schools for the overall lead thanks to the greater number of postseason games UK tends to play each year.  In fact, with Calipari bringing in mountain-loads of talent each year it would not be surprising if UK caught and passed Vanderbilt within the next 3 seasons and UNLV within the next 8 (based on UK playing 5 or so more games per year than either other school due to deep SEC/NCAA tournament runs).

I don't recall exactly when I started to pay attention to the streak, but it's become something that I watch for and anticipate every time I listen to or watch a game and it's the first item in the box score that I look at for games that I miss.  There are times where I am more nervous about the Cats not having hit a three than I am when they are behind in the game.

Just how important is it though?  There are streaks and then there are Streaks.  Some, like a winning streak or a hitting streak in baseball are notable and significant because the action involved (winning a game, getting a hit) is inherently notable or important or difficult.  Winning is the on-the-court goal of every sport.  Hitting a baseball is a tremendously difficult thing to do.  So when a team or a player is in the midst of a streak of sufficient length we take notice and wonder how long it can continue.

Then there's hitting a three pointer.  It's not a difficult thing to do.  Heck, you don't even need to be a good shooter to do it.  I'm about as bad at shooting a basketball as you'll find, but give me 5 or 6 tries and even I can usually get one to go down.  The streak isn't notable because hitting a three in a game is any big deal, it's notable because it's so long.  It's almost a circular arguement: "Why is this streak important?  Because it's a streak!"

This lack of any real significance holds even if we examine it more closely.  Kentucky is not more likely to win games because of it, nor are they more likely to fill Rupp Arena with fans, earn an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, or attract recruits to the school (can you imagine Cal telling a kid he should come to Kentucky because they've hit a three in 700+ straight games?).  Heck, the streak doesn't even mean that UK is particularly good at shooting threes!

In every conceivable way, continuing this streak does nothing to benefit the program.  At best, it's a neat bit of trivia to throw on the end of a list of all the other far more important achievements - the victories, National Championships, Final Fours, tournament appearances, SEC titles, All-Americans, NBA draft picks, etc.  A small cherry at the top of a very large sundae.

And yet, last March as I watched the Cats fall further and further behind the Mountineers while continually clanging long distance shots off the rim with increasing desperation, I found myself hoping that - regardless of the outcome of the game - UK would at least hit a three and keep the run going for another season.

Just hit one, I thought, at least keep the streak alive even if you can't win the game

Of course it did finally happen near the end of the second half (which only goes to show once again that this streak is less about ability and more about stubborn persistance) and that provided a small bit of comfort to the disappointing end of an otherwise spectacular season.

That game has already been discussed to death with regard to coaching and strategy and execution and I don't mean to revive those arguments.  But in the days afterwards I pondered a particular change in tactics that I believe might have had a decent chance of successfully winning the game.  Suppose at halftime Cal had gathered the guys around him in the locker room and told them,

"Look, for whatever reason the threes just aren't falling tonight so stop trying them.  Get the ball inside.  I don't care if DeMarcus is surrounded by four defenders plus half the 82nd Airborne - put the ball up near the rim and let him go get it.  Drive to the basket.  Put up a soft shot and let Patrick grab the rebound and cram it back in.  Whatever you do, don't take a three.  Don't even think about taking a three.  I don't care if you're at halfcourt and there's two seconds left on the shot clock, if you even *look* at the rim I'm pulling you out of the game."

Would the Cats have won?  There's no way to know for sure of course, but they missed 20 threes in the second half (4/24) but hit 9/13 (69.2%) on twos - what might have happened if those attempts had come from closer to the basket?  Even if the shots didn't go in it would be easier to grab a rebound and get a second shot opportunity.  It's not farfetched to imagine UK getting back into the game and preventing WVU from building their lead by going exclusively inside this way.  It's not a stretch to imagine them pulling out yet another close win this way and going to the Final Four.  It might have happened and it might not, but I think it's a plausible scenario, especially for this kind of "What if" wish casting.

Normally, there is no advantage to not attempting a three and settling for just two point shots.  The object of the game is to outscore your opponent and hitting threes is a really efficient way to do that.  A team that decides they won't try to hit long distance shots is going to have a difficult time winning against teams that do.  That's what makes the West Virginia game so unusual and so fascinating to me.  Here is an important game in which it is possible to construct a convincing argument that not attempting threes actually improves your chances at winning.  The question is, given such an unusual set of circumstances would it still be worth trying?  Is throwing away 22 years worth of effort worth it, even if it means going to the Final Four?.  I've already pointed out that a Final Four appearance is a far more important accomplishment, but I admit that if the game had proceeded this way I would feel a bit conflicted about the outcome.  It isn't rational, but then feelings seldom are.

So I'm curious: what does the rest of BBN think about the 3 point streak and its relative importance in the pursuit of basketball excellence?  Is it merely an interesting sidebar to a game or has its shear length endowed it with a significance that carries it beyond the importance of the outcome of any single game?  What say you?

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