Vaught's Views: Fitch back out of starting lineup, but back on top

March 14, 2004|LARRY VAUGHT

ATLANTA - Gerald Fitch is perhaps Kentucky's best player, but Kentucky still seems to play its best basketball when Fitch is not in the starting lineup.

The senior guard had another big game off the bench here Saturday to help No. 8 Kentucky beat South Carolina 78-63 in the Southeastern Conference Tournament semifinals.

Fitch had a game-high 24 points in only 19 minutes of play. It was the third time he's scored 20 or more points in 0a game since becoming UK's sixth man following a hand injury that forced him to miss three games.

Of course, Fitch was expecting to start Saturday's game. Fitch started the regular season finale against Florida, Senior Day, but remained in the starting lineup in Friday's SEC Tournament opener against Georgia.


That move was viewed as a demotion by Barbour, who had just one point and one rebound in the win over Georgia. Barbour had played much better in a starting role and minutes before Saturday's game, Fitch learned he would be back on the bench for the opening tip.

"I didn't know I wasn't going to start," Fitch said. "It was kind of a surprise, but it doesn't matter. Coach Smith has his tricks to make us play better and if it works, that's fine."

Fitch had been giving the Wildcats the same kind of spark off the bench that point guard Cliff Hawkins did last year when he was UK's sixth man. That's one reason Smith said last week that he liked having Fitch come off the bench. The coach also had to notice that Barbour didn't have nearly the same vigor against Georgia that he had in previous games.

Smith also said he remembered how well UK had played at South Carolina recently when Barbour started and Fitch came off the bench to score 16 points in 22 minutes.

"He may have been thinking I could give us a spark like that," Fitch said. "I don't question that, but he was talking about the other South Carolina game and the way it went."

Fitch was limited to five points and five minutes of play the first half because he picked up two quick fouls. In the second half, he was nearly unstoppable when he went 6-for-9 from the field. He had nine points in a two-minute spell that stretched UK's lead from 44-39 to 53-41 with 12 minutes to play.

Barbour also had a bounce back in his step

Barbour also had the bounce back in his step against South Carolina. He was only 2-for-8 from the field, but he was much more active defensively and did get four rebounds in 27 minutes.

"I don't know why we might play better with Antwain starting," Kentucky's Chuck Hayes said. "Either one is capable of starting and playing well. Gerald does get a little attitude about him coming off the bench that helps us."

"I think it is just a coincidence," Fitch said. "Maybe it is just more mind games with Antwain."

Who knows? Barbour was unavailable to the media as he stayed in the training room after the game. He spent most of the designated interview time hiding in the same training room Friday before emerging long enough to insist that not starting was "not a big deal" even if his actions on and off the court sent a different message.

South Carolina coach Dave Odom tactfully avoided offering an opinion about whether bringing Fitch off the bench made UK a better team or not.

"Tubby Smith makes $2 million a year to make that decision. I am not making it for him," Odom said.

Actually, Smith makes $2.5 million per year. But what's $500,000 between friends, especially when Smith is not going to ask anyone, including Fitch and Barbour, for advice on the Cats' starting lineup?

However, Odom did make it clear that he was impressed by what he saw from Kentucky Saturday.

"I have not seen a better team than Kentucky when they are playing their best, and they always seem to play well versus us," Odom said. "They've got several players that just can make big plays.

"They've got great balance and when you can come off the bench with a guy like Fitch, it tells you something about the strength of their team. Him coming in and scoring 24 points in 19 minutes was remarkable."

Smith obviously would not say who he would start in today's SEC Tournament championship game against Florida. But why fight it or fool with "mind games" to inspire Barbour and/or Fitch?

Barbour has shown he plays better as a starter even if he's not as good as Fitch and Fitch has shown he can be far more productive coming off the bench than Barbour ever will be. That's why it doesn't take a $2.5 million annual salary to know that for Kentucky to make the best run it can in the upcoming NCAA Tournament, Barbour has to start and Fitch has to fill the sixth man role like no one else at UK can this year.

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