Fitch's return would help ballhandling

February 17, 2004|LARRY VAUGHT

LEXINGTON - Leading scorer Gerald Fitch practiced with Kentucky Monday and coach Tubby Smith thinks he should be "available" when the ninth-ranked Wildcats host Arkansas Wednesday.

Fitch, a senior guard, has missed the last three games, including Saturday's loss at Georgia, because of a finger injury on his shooting hand.

"He practiced today," said Smith Monday night on his weekly radio call-in show. "He caught the ball, shot the ball at times pretty well. He's much better than he was Thursday (at practice), the last time he worked out. We'll see how it goes tomorrow as well, but he should be available to us by Wednesday."

Smith said Fitch will wear a protective sleeve on the index finger and that it will be held together with his middle finger.


"I am sure it can be damaged again. With that sleeve on that will hold it so he can't get it caught or pull it away from the other finger," Smith said. "It will require some adjustment in his shooting."

Fitch, who averages 15.8 points per game, will also give Kentucky needed help with ballhandling. The Wildcats had 22 turnovers against Georgia, and Smith was not pleased with the play of backup guards Brandon Stockton and Josh Carrier.

"Ballhandling was probably what was missing most without him," Smith said. "You can't turn the ball over 22 times on the road in a game like that (at Georgia). He's not only our best 3-point shooter, but Gerald is also our second best ballhandler. We need a better ballhandler in the backcourt with Cliff.

"Let's face it, Gerald would have meant a lot, especially with the way we have been struggling from the outside (with our shooting)."

Smith said senior point guard Cliff Hawkins did an "adequate" job at Georgia, but UK's ballhandling has to be better.

"We've got to keep Cliff's head in the game," Smith said.

Arkansas has lost three straight

Arkansas has lost three straight games, but Smith says that can be misleading. Arkansas was tied with LSU with seven minutes to play before losing. The Razorbacks had a 65-63 lead with two minutes left against Tennessee, but lost. Arkansas cut a 60-42 deficit against Mississippi State Saturday to 73-70 with two minutes to play before losing 77-70. Over the last two years, Arkansas was 15-0 in games where it scored 70 or more points until it lost to Mississippi State.

"Arkansas is playing much better now," Smith said. "They've beaten a good Auburn team and a good Vanderbilt team that beat us. They are coming off a very competitive game against Mississippi State. It will be a real challenge for us."

Arkansas coach Stan Heath hopes his young team, which starts two sophomores and two freshmen, can be competitive in Rupp Arena.

"Our team is playing good basketball; we just don't have much to show for it," Heath said. "Kentucky is one of the toughest places to play in our conference. The start of the game is so important. We can't get rattled. We have to make sure we are defending as well as being productive offensively."

Sophomore Jonathon Modica had a career-high 33 points on 12-for-19 shooting against Mississippi State. Freshman guard Ronnie Brewer is second on the team in scoring at 12.4 points per game. He leads the team in rebounding (5.6 per game), assists (3.5) and steals (1.8). He's also shooting 48.3 percent from the field and has made more field goals than any other Southeastern Conference freshman this season.

Arkansas has shot 452 3-point shots compared to 354 by Kentucky.

"We better defend the 3-point shot better. If we don't against Arkansas, we are going to have a real problem," Smith said.

The Kentucky coach put his team through a 6 a.m. workout Monday in addition to its regular afternoon workout.

"We are rededicating ourselves, much like the 1998 (national championship) team did," Smith said. "At this time of year, you have to recommit. You hit that lull, but we are expecting to be playing for almost two more months. We need to pick it up."

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