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Talented, tall (7-1) and still learning

Western Kentucky junior center Chris Marcus will be a big test for the Gators inside defense today.

Four inches.

That's how much taller Western Kentucky center Chris Marcus, at 7 feet 1, is than the tallest player on Florida's roster. And it will take five Gators to make up the difference.

"We have to play tough defense," said forward Matt Bonner, one of two UF players who are 6 feet 9. "We have to help out down low and pressure the outside so they can't pass it in to him as easily. It won't be easy. It has to be a team effort."

Florida (23-6), the No. 3 seed in the South Region, opens against No. 14 Western Kentucky (24-6) at 3 p.m. today at the Superdome.

Marcus, a junior, was named Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year and tournament Most Outstanding Player. He averages 16.9 points, 11.9 rebounds and 3.2 blocks, and enters the NCAA Tournament as the nation's second-leading rebounder behind Iowa's Reggie Evans (12.0).

The scariest part?

He's still learning.

Marcus did not begin playing basketball until his senior season at Olympic High School in Charlotte, N.C., opting instead to be the tallest clerk in the pet department of the local Wal-Mart.

Touted as a likely NBA lottery pick, he will return for his senior season, and possibly a fifth if he regains a season lost to academic ineligibility.

"I'm definitely coming back to get my degree," said Marcus, a sociology major. "Plus, I still have a lot of basketball stuff to work on. I'm still young at the game."

According to Florida, it doesn't show.

"If Chris Marcus were playing in the SEC he would be the best center in our league," UF coach Billy Donovan said. "He's very talented. It's impressive to watch film on Western Kentucky from early in the season and see his development over the course of the year."

Marcus moves well and has a soft shooting touch for his size, with a nifty turnaround jumper.

Matching up with Marcus, who at 285 pounds adds brute strength to the challenge, will fall largely to All-SEC center Udonis Haslem, who gives up five inches and 20 pounds.

On defense, Haslem will try to keep Marcus as far as possible from the basket and hold his ground until a double-team arrives. On offense, he won't change a thing.

"His being 7 feet 1 doesn't change anything I do," said Haslem, whose 58.8 field-goal percentage ranks 10th nationally. "I'm still going to make strong post moves to the basket, try to get good post position and pass if I don't have a shot. I'm not going to let anybody dictate to me how I'm going to play my game."

Marcus is equally nervous about defending Haslem, who rarely has a height advantage, but makes up for it with experience and a lightening-quick drop step.

"He's relentless around the goal," Marcus said of Haslem. "He can run the court and hit shots away from the basket and rebound the ball. And you can't say you're going to foul him, because he goes to the line and knocks down his free throws. He's an all-around threat."

Last season, Florida struggled to contain North Carolina 7-footer Brendan Haywood, who scored 20 points on 6-for-7 shooting in UF's 71-59 victory in the national semifinals.

And should Haslem get into foul trouble, the Gators lack of depth without senior forward Brent Wright, who had season-ending foot surgery on Monday, could become glaring. Marcus outweighs UF's only backup post player, 6-9 freshman Bonell Colas, by 89 pounds.

"I know people see a guy 7-feet tall and wonder if he can play or not," Marcus said. "This is an opportunity not just for me, but for the school. We want to play hard and have fun, and we'll see what happens."