Vaught's Views: Barbour's play should put fear into starters

February 12, 2004|LARRY VAUGHT

LEXINGTON - Fear might be the greatest motivating factor for any athlete.

No, it's not the fear that would come with being afraid of a coach. No, it's not the fear of losing. Instead, it's the fear of going to the bench because someone else is better.

That's why Antwain Barbour's recent play may do more to help Kentucky's bid to contend for a national championship than anything else that has happened this year.

The Cats came into the year with six experienced players. Kentucky coach Tubby Smith settled on a starting lineup of seniors Cliff Hawkins, Erik Daniels and Gerald Fitch along with junior Chuck Hayes and sophomore Kelenna Azubuike. The only real decision came in making Azubuike the starter over Barbour, Kentucky's other returning veteran.


The theory was that Barbour's athleticism off the bench would be able to energize the Cats much like Hawkins did when he was perhaps the nation's best sixth man last year. While the plan looked good on paper, it didn't work because Barbour was not productive. He missed shots. He got beat on defense. He was careless with the basketball.

No matter how upset Smith might be with a starter, there was no viable threat on the bench to make any starter truly fear losing his starting position.

Now that has changed. Fitch, UK's leading scorer, didn't start the last two games because of a finger injury on his shooting hand. That gave Barbour, who went 4-for-5 from 3-point range Jan. 28 to help beat Mississippi, a chance to get into the starting lineup for the first time this season.

He got 10 points, three rebounds and two assists in 28 minutes against South Carolina. That set the stage for his career game Tuesday against Alabama - 23 points and five rebounds in 33 minutes of play.

Smith noted that he was clearly the "best player on the floor" against Alabama. That means if Fitch does come back Saturday at Georgia, Smith faces a decision. Does he put Barbour back on the bench or does he leave him in the starting lineup and sit someone else?

Azubuike has been mired in a shooting slump. He's 17-for-53 from the field the last five games. But he has pulled off 29 rebounds the last four games. Maybe he takes a turn coming off the bench.

Fitch has been in an even bigger shooting slump, perhaps suggesting that his hand was hurting well before the Florida game when he finally told the coaching staff that he was in pain. Fitch is just 20-for-71 overall from the field and 9-for-38 from 3-point range in the last six games. He's also managed just 25 rebounds in those six games. Maybe he starts the game on the bench and see if that helps his production.

Smith now has options

The bottom line is that Smith now has options. No starter can feel totally secure now because Smith has six players, not five, capable of starting.

"I certainly hope it does put a little fear in all of them," said Kentucky assistant coach Dave Hobbs. "As long as Antwain plays that way and bring a certain energy and has his confidence up, it helps. It's a misfortune for Gerald that he got hurt, but the byproduct is that we've won two games without him and Antwain has played a lot better starting than he did coming off the bench.

"Everybody needs a little hammer over their head. That doesn't hurt anybody. Competition is good for everybody."

How will it work?

"It's not complicated. If you don't want to do it, then the best thing we have now is that you can sit down over and someone else will do it," Hobbs said. "That keeps the guys putting the pedal to the metal and going full bore.

"If you don't want to do it, then Antwain will do it. If Kelenna or Gerald or Cliff or anyone doesn't do what is expected, we'll get someone else to do it as long as we have someone viable to put in there that the starters feel is a threat to take their spot. Now we have that with Antwain."

And Kentucky likely will have a former starter sitting on the bench whenever Fitch is ready to play. Smith not only lavished praise on Barbour for his play against Alabama, but he also now has a chance to reward him for not giving up on the season when things were not going well for him.

"I appreciate his patience," Smith said. "He's been the same upbeat, outgoing young man all season. Everybody gets a boost out of starting. I hope he did."

He did and that's why Smith won't miss a chance to put a little fear into his veterans by making Barbour a starter to make sure everyone understands that anyone on the team can find himself on the bench if he's not playing well.

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