Vaught's Views: Hawkins, Fitch create problems for UK foes

November 14, 2003|LARRY VAUGHT

Even though he's only seen Cliff Hawkins and Gerald Fitch play once in person, Mazz Trakh has a warning for upcoming University of Kentucky opponents.

"Their guards have a great middle game. They can play at the basket, away from the basket and from the foul line," said Trakh. "It's very tough to defend guards that can do all three of those things. Those guys can score and they are a tough matchup for anyone."

Fitch scored 22 points, grabbed five rebounds and had two assists Wednesday in Kentucky's 94-61 exhibition victory over EA Sports, which was coached by Trakh. Hawkins had four points, two rebounds, seven assists and no turnovers.

"In Gerald and Cliff, we have two senior guards. We need those guys on the court as much as possible," UK coach Tubby Smith said.


That's because as valuable as they are offensively, they might be even more valuable defensively.

Kentucky's success this year likely will be determined by its pressure defense. The two exhibition games have shown how much pressure UK's team quickness can put on opponents - and Smith has yet to have the team work much on its full-court trap.

Hawkins makes the defense go. He can harass an opposing point guard like no one else in the Southeastern Conference.

"I am just going to let someone else bring the ball up the court so I don't have to go against him," Russell Lakey, Vanderbilt's starting point guard, said at the SEC media day.

He wasn't joking, either, and he might not be the only SEC guard to take that approach.

"Hawkins is one of the best in the country," Alabama guard Earnest Shelton said. "He really knows how to get up under the shorts of whoever he's defending. He is so quick and he's willing to get into you, chase you and stay right in your face for 40 minutes. Nobody likes that.

"If you know what to expect, you can try and avoid his pressure. If you have never played against him before, it can get to you."

Fitch is also a feared defensive player among SEC opponents because of his physical play and competitive spirit. He's not afraid to bang inside with bigger players and doesn't hesitate to make contact away from the ball.

"Hawkins and Fitch are two of the best defensive guards in the SEC, and probably in the country, too," Tennessee point guard C.J. Watson said. "They put continuous pressure on the point guard. They try to disrupt you and get you out of your offense. It's tough playing against them. They never let you relax."

They have shown they might be even better this year

They have already shown they might be even better this year than they were last season, when UK won 26 straight games and climbed to No. 1 in the national rankings.

Hawkins was 10-for-15 from the field with 24 points in the two exhibition wins. He had 11 assists, four rebounds, four steals and no turnovers in 51 minutes of play.

Fitch was 18-for-34 from the field, including 7-for-16 from 3-point range, and scored 48 points. He also pulled off five rebounds, handed out four assists and made five steals.

"We go as they go," senior forward Erik Daniels said. "They set the tone on both ends of the floor."

While Fitch often gets credit for his play - he's a preseason All-SEC pick - Hawkins is not normally recognized as one of the nation's best players. Lakey says that is a major mistake fans and media members make, but not one that players make.

"He is the tone-setter on defense. He makes it hard for a point guard to even bring the ball up the court," Lakey said. "He's so quick and disrupts what you are doing.

"His hands are probably quicker than anyone I've ever played against. He's probably the best on-the-ball defender in the country."

"A defensive stopper is as good as someone who can score," Watson said. "Hawkins wears down opponents with his defense. If he scores, it's just a plus. He can win a game without scoring a point."

He might, but don't be surprised to see him score more this year. He improved his 3-point shooting last year, but the faster pace Smith seems intent on using this year will benefit Hawkins more than anyone. He's at his best in the open court where he can either spot an open teammate or go to the basket.

In most years, the nation's best teams have outstanding guard play. That's why even if UK goes with a small lineup or goes bigger with an inexperienced center, the Wildcats still have Fitch and Hawkins.

"Unless you get to see them play, you can't appreciate how good they are," Trakh said. "When people talk about the nation's best guards, they better put those two in there. They are that good."

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