When Kentucky’s best-in-the-nation streak of 1,047 consecutive games with a made three-point shot ended in the men’s NCAA Tournament round of 64 against Davidson on March 15, not all UK fans were sad.
If the comments on my social media accounts were indicative, some Wildcats backers had grown weary of the three-point streak. They saw it as a distraction from what really matters — winning games. Those fans did not mind seeing the Cats’ 0-for-6 performance on treys in the 78-73 victory over Davidson.
“They don’t hang banners for streaks,” one UK fan commented.
“A fun little footnote while it lasted,” another posted. “But, ultimately, (the three-point streak) means nothing.”
“Couldn’t care less about the three-point streak,” a third opined.
Over most of its existence, I was not especially invested in the three-point streak. However, an interview with former Kentucky guard Jeff Sheppard last year as the streak was approaching 1,000 games changed my view of its importance.
For reasons I will let Sheppard explain below, I think Kentucky basketball lost something meaningful when the made-three-point streak — which started in the fourth game of the 1988-89 season and ended in the 35th game of 2017-18 — died.
“What was so unique about the streak, my three-pointers in the 1990s were a part of it,” Sheppard said Friday. “Richie Farmer and John Pelphrey and Derrick Millar (formerly “Miller”) hitting threes in the 1980s were part of it. And it ran right up to Kevin Knox hitting threes this season. I thought that was something pretty cool.”
For UK basketball, having something that tied players from various eras to the current Wildcats program was important because Kentucky — unlike, say, North Carolina or Duke — does not have a unifying history of coaching continuity.
At UNC, all the coaches since Dean Smith retired in 1997 have come from within Smith’s Tar Heels coaching tree.
At Duke, Mike Krzyzewski has been the Blue Devils head man since 1980-81.
Conversely, Kentucky in modern times has had distinct coaching eras. During the three-point streak alone, the Wildcats head-coaching baton passed from Eddie Sutton to Rick Pitino to Tubby Smith to Billy Gillispie to John Calipari.
Only the handoff from Pitino to Smith represented change within the same coaching tree, and that continuity was essentially nullified once Pitino took the head coaching job at UK’s archrival, Louisville.
Given that history, things that allow players from the previous coaching regimes to feel connected to the current UK program are important.
Bill Keightley, the venerable Kentucky equipment manager who started under Adolph Rupp in 1962 and was still on the Wildcats’ bench with Gillispie in the 2007-08 season, was such a cross-generational link.
Once Keightley died on March 31, 2008, a major connection for past players was lost.
“Bill Keightley used to be the link that connected us all,” Sheppard said. “In a different way, the (three-point) streak was another connection.”
Sheppard — who made 128 career three-pointers as a Kentucky player and played on UK’s 1996 and 1998 NCAA title teams — was watching the Cats’ contest with Davidson on TV as the streak was ending.
Immersed in a close NCAA tourney game, he said he was not thinking about the fate of the three-point streak of which he was a part.
“Not until the (TV) commentators started talking about it,” Sheppard said. “Then, I was really hoping somebody would stick a three and keep (the streak) going.”
When the game ended and Kentucky did not have a made three-pointer, Sheppard said “I didn’t cry or anything. But I was disappointed. The streak, it was a significant milestone. It gave all the players who were a part of it a reason to feel they were still involved with the program.”
The breaking of that link is why the death of Kentucky’s 1,047-game streak with a made three-point streak did matter.