Vaught's Views: Versatility biggest key to Wildcats' success

February 11, 2004|LARRY VAUGHT

LEXINGTON - Every time Kennedy Winston looked around, he had a different Kentucky defender on him.

Kelenna Azubuike started the game guarding Alabama's leading scorer. Next it was Antwain Barbour. Then Chuck Hayes. More Wildcats took a turn guarding him for short spells because of defensive switches or an Alabama fast break.

That versatility contributed as much to No. 8 Kentucky's 66-55 win over Alabama here Tuesday as did Antwain Barbour's career breakout game - 23 points, including UK's first 13, and five rebounds in 32 minutes.

"They have a lot of guys who can play a lot of positions," said Winston after his 3-for-13 shooting performance. "They are just a good team. They won't let you attack because someone is always there. They are not like a regular team. They can all move their feet and they can all guard five positions. It's hard to find an opening."


Alabama point guard Antoine Pettway knew the feeling. He was 2-for-9 from the field, didn't have an assist and made two turnovers in 31 frustrating minutes.

"They just play hard, solid defense," Pettway said. "They switch on all screens. They really guard you."

But the versatility doesn't stop there. If it did, Barbour would not have made injured starter Gerald Fitch, UK's leading scorer, look like he really might be part of Tubby Smith's coaching staff with his offensive play. Barbour was 5-for-6 from the field in the game's first 12 minutes while his teammates were 0-for-10.

Given a chance to start for a second straight game, Barbour played, shot and scored much like Fitch has most of the season.

However, there's a lot more versatility than that. Hayes stole the ball from Kennedy once and drove the length of the floor to score. Another time point guard Cliff Hawkins went on the floor to get a steal and passed ahead to Hayes, who hit seldom-used freshman Sheray Thomas for a dunk.

One time Hawkins might have led the break, the next time Erik Daniels or Hayes might have.

"We would try to press and they would just throw it to a big guy to bring up the floor like a guard," Pettway said.

Smith liked the way Cats responded to early deficit

Smith might have been disappointed with UK's "sluggish start" that caused it to fall behind 13-6, but he liked the way his team responded and credited the Cats' versatility as much as anything for the comeback.

"It creates a lot of problems when you have versatility," Smith said. "If we just used one guy on Winston, he can measure him. But if you have a tall guy, a shorter guy and then a quicker guy, he has to take more time to make his move. We kept him off balance and that's what we wanted to do."

Kentucky assistant coach Dave Hobbs acknowledges that UK's biggest strength is its versatility.

"We feel like mismatches don't beat you. Open shots beat you," Hobbs said. "One of the focal points of our defense is not to give up open shots. If that means Erik has to switch out on Cliff's guy or vice versa, then that is what we will do."

Kentucky's bench players finally seem to have grasped that idea better. If not, Smith emphasizes it often. Freshman Bobby Perry played well in Saturday's win over South Carolina and earned early playing time against Alabama. However, he made two defensive mistakes and did not return.

Hobbs says certain reserves have difficult times in certain games being able to do what Smith wants. That's why the coach might go to Thomas, who had played just 12 minutes in the last 10 games, for 10 minutes against Alabama.

"What we want to do is play our game," Hobbs said. "You don't want to change your game because of somebody you put in. You might have to change because of someone the other team puts in, but not somebody you put in. All our guys have learned that if they want to play, they have to be able to guard people, switch out, trap and do all the things we like on both ends of the court."

And how well does Kentucky do that?

"We've played some good teams, but Kentucky defended us better than we've been defended from a physical standpoint," Alabama coach Mark Gottfried said. "They just don't let you go where you want to and they make plays to get where they want to get."

Which is why the stars for the Cats may change from game to game but the wins just keep coming thanks to that versatility.

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