Sports

Young Cats to face 'Rowdy Reptiles'

Judging by its game Saturday at Vanderbilt, Florida's front line won't present the biggest challenge when Kentucky travels to the O-Dome on Tuesday night.

Judging by past history, it will be the Rowdy Reptiles in the seats.

Despite its two national titles under Billy Donovan, Florida may be a football school, but when the archrival Cats come to the O'Connell Center, the Gator Nation is all about loud, sweaty hoops.

See, the O-Dome is a uniquely configured arena, where the shorts-wearing, sandals-sporting crowd of 12,000 is crammed closely together on bleachers, its reach nearly down to the floor.

The Florida student section, the Rowdy Reptiles, sits right across from the bench. Only it rarely sits. It arrives early, sports an array of costumes, and yells until (as the commercial says) its lungs bleed. Being indoors apparently reduces young Floridians to primal screams.

It can be an exhilarating experience for victorious opponents — witness then-Kentucky coach Tubby Smith, sporting a devilish grin, raising his arms in triumph in front of the students while waiting for a post-game interview after the Cats' 2002 win at the O-Dome.

But, if things aren't going right, it's easy for opponents to find themselves unhinged, as UK can attest. The Cats haven't won in Gainesville since 2004. And no doubt the Reptiles will target the youngest Cats, i.e. John Wall and Eric Bledsoe, as well as the most emotional, i.e. Big Cuz, DeMarcus Cousins.

If the Cats keep their cool, Florida will be the team feeling the heat. Never mind the loss of point guard Nick Calathes, or the Gators' chances at reeling in Ft. Lauderdale point guard Brandon Knight, Rivals' No. 1 prospect, who is also high on Kentucky, Connecticut and Kansas. Since the Gators won back-to-back titles in 2006 and '07, Donovan's biggest problem has been replacing Al Horford and Joakim Noah.

He hasn't done it. Marreese Speights was a promising player in 2008, but skipped Gainesville for the pros just as he was coming into his own. Alex Tyus tried to handle the post last year, but the 6-foot-8, 220-pounder is more of a power forward and threatened to transfer before Donovan convinced him that post help was on the way.

That was supposed to be Vernon Macklin, the 6-10, 240-pound transfer from Georgetown. But Macklin is averaging just 10 points and 5.5 rebounds, while 6-9 freshman Erik Murphy is averaging less than 10 minutes per game. And 6-10 sophomore Kenny Kadji has missed extended time with a back injury.

Neither Macklin nor Murphy could do much with Vandy center A.J. Ogilvy on Saturday. After scoring eight points in the first half, Ogilvy scored the Commodores' first eight points of the second half.

Ogilvy finished with 16 for the half and 24 for the game. Macklin fouled out with 6:45 remaining. Murphy picked up his fifth foul 40 seconds later. Vandy won 95-87.

"We want to get A.J. the ball and, over the years, Florida has done a great job taking him out of the game," said Vandy Coach Kevin Stallings after the game. "This time around, we did a little better job of getting A.J. the ball inside. We came out in the second half making sure we threw the ball inside."

Look for Kentucky to close its ears and do the same Tuesday.

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