Fitch emerging as a leader

Kentucky coach Tubby Smith praises sophomore guard Gerald Fitch for his consistency in SEC play...

LEXINGTON, Ky. --- In a season marked by his team's inconsistency, Gerald Fitch is emerging as one player Kentucky coach Tubby Smith can count on.

The sophomore guard is the Wildcats' second-leading scorer (10.9) and leading rebounder (6.8) in Southeastern Conference play. He's scored 40 points and pulled down 24 rebounds in the last three games, shooting 58 percent from the field and 47 percent from 3-point range.

"We need him to look for his shot more and be more aggressive, which he's starting to do," Smith said. "He's playing the best of anybody on our team in conference play. And it's not even close."

No. 10 Kentucky (16-6, 6-4 SEC) will be looking for more of the same from Fitch on Wednesday at 7 p.m. ET when it plays host to Vanderbilt (14-9, 4-6 SEC). The Cats are 24-0 against the Commodores in Rupp Arena and have lost to Vandy in Lexington since 1974, but have been stunned at home three times this season. That means they may once again need a spark from the unassuming Fitch.

"I don't really see myself as a leader on this team," he said. "At least not like captains on the team (Tayshaun Prince and J.P. Blevins). But I've always tried to lead by example, with my intensity. Anybody can do that, even the freshmen.

"But here lately, I've been more comfortable speaking up and leading in that way. I feel like I've been around here long enough now, and I've earned that."

"We see it in some guys taking a real sincere leadership role," Smith said. "Gerald is really growing up, and Cliff (Hawkins) is really growing up. You see it in Chuck (Hayes), too. A lot of guys are starting to take that role.

"They probably give as consistent an effort as anybody on a day in and day out basis... They've been playing well, and when you're playing well, you're more confident to speak up and be a leader."

Fitch is a natural in that regard with a crowd-pleasing style which includes aggressive man-to-man defense and fearless rebounding despite his 6-foot-3, 188-pound frame. He's the league's No. 8 rebounder in conference play and has posted two of his three career double-doubles this season.

Now that his offensive game has picked up after a slow start, Smith has reason to be encouraged.

"The way Keith (Bogans) has struggled, Gerald has really had to step up his game," Smith said. "We need that from him."

Asked if Fitch has deferred too much to the Cats' older stars --- primarily Prince and Bogans --- and was unselfish to a fault, Smith said he didn't think that was the case.

"But I think we've got some other people who need to give up the ball more," Smith said. "And he's one that needs more shots."

Fitch, who was billed primarily as a shooter coming out of high school in Macon, Ga., said he's more than willing to put up more shots. But he also recognizes the importance of getting all his teammates involved.

"If we're going to reach our potential, guys like Tayshaun and Keith have to be playing well and scoring for us," he said. "I have to keep doing what I've been doing, filling my role."

Fitch said his recent stretch of improved play would be more satisfying if the entire team was playing well.

"Around here, you've got to win games to be happy... all your games," he said. "One of the things about this program is when you're winning, everybody is happy. But if you lose a couple, everybody's talking about every little thing. It's not very fun."

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