Vaught's Views: Cats likely will be Fitch-less Saturday

February 06, 2004|LARRY VAUGHT

Of all the problems Kentucky has had during this up-and-down 15-3 season, one the Cats have not had was a serious injury.

Or at least not until now.

Senior guard Gerald Fitch, the team's leading scorer and most productive 3-point shooter, likely won't play Saturday against South Carolina because of a sprained right index finger suffered during Tuesday's win at Florida.

Kentucky coach Tubby Smith was not totally ready to rule Fitch out. But he sounded like a coach who knew he likely was going to have to make a decision about how to alter his starting lineup for the first time this season.

"He did injure his shooting finger." said Smith Thursday. "He had X-rays yesterday and there was not anything broken. I saw him holding it after the game. I can't remember exactly when he hurt it in the game."


Smith held Fitch out of practice Thursday to make sure he didn't do more damage to the finger.

"It (the sprain) is at the second joint that brings your finger back up," Smith said. "The tendon slipped and had to be moved back so that he can flex that finger again. Thank goodness he did not have to have surgery."

The good news for Smith, and Kentucky, is that this should not be a season-lingering injury. Or it won't be as long as Smith avoids the temptation to rush him back too quick.

Smith admitted that he probably would be "cautious" with Fitch. Earlier this season Kelenna Azubuike had a similar injury - but it was his pinky finger on his non-shooting hand. He didn't have to miss a game, but the injury did not impact his shot and he was not as likely to make the injury worse by playing.

"Chances are he may not play. That's where we are leaning," Smith, who said the final decision will be made by UK's trainer and team doctor, said.

Smith must decide who will replace Fitch

That gives Smith today to decide who will replace Fitch in the starting lineup. Earlier this week he almost sounded like he was leaning to starting 7-foot center Lukasz Obrzut along with Chuck Hayes and Erik Daniels to give UK a bigger lineup. He could do that Saturday and shift Azubuike from small forward to Fitch's guard spot.

The more logical option, especially considering South Carolina's overall team speed, is to put senior Antwain Barbour into the starting lineup in Fitch's spot.

Kentucky had been waiting all year for Barbour to emerge as a player and he finally seemed to do that last week when he went 4-for-5 from 3-point range against Mississippi. Then Smith barely played him in the loss at Vanderbilt despite UK's outside shooting woes because the coach felt Barbour was not paying attention to what was happening when he was not in the game.

Or he could use Josh Carrier - the player he proclaimed as the backup shooting guard earlier this week when he said each starter would have a set reserve behind him - in Fitch's spot and still have Barbour to bring off the bench.

Smith admitted that not having Fitch would "change" not only his starting lineup, but also his playing rotation.

"I'll cross that bridge when I get there, but it would give someone else a chance (to play)," Smith said.

On his weekly radio show Thursday night, Fitch said he "probably" would start Barbour. He still didn't rule Fitch completely out, but it just would not make sense to take any chances - even if Saturday's game will determine who keeps the SEC Eastern Division lead.

Louisville coach Rick Pitino played Francisco Garcia and Taquan Dean when they were not 100 percent last week and the Cardinals lost to Marquette. He had to sit both players out Tuesday because of those same injuries and Louisville lost again.

Smith knows having Fitch healthy the next six weeks is more important than having him risk making the injury worse by playing Saturday. That's why barring a miraculous recovery, not playing Fitch should be as easy a decision as starting Barbour in his place will be.

Central Kentucky News Articles