Maryland up for big challenge vs. Kentucky

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Photo - Patrick Semansky/AP
Maryland sophomore Alex Len, who has put on 30 pounds since last season, will face a big Kentucky frontline on Friday.
Patrick Semansky/AP Maryland sophomore Alex Len, who has put on 30 pounds since last season, will face a big Kentucky frontline on Friday.
Sports,College,Kevin Dunleavy

Seven-foot-one Sam Bowie and 6-11 Mel Turpin were the lumbering Twin Towers of the Kentucky basketball team who powered the Wildcats to the Final Four in 1984. A generation later, Kentucky is contemplating a similar arrangement with a pair of tall, agile freshmen who represent how much basketball has changed in three decades.

When Maryland opens against defending NCAA champion Kentucky on Friday night in the Barclays Center Classic, the Terrapins will have to deal with 6-10 Nerlens Noel, the USA Today high school player of the year, and 7-0 Willie Cauley-Stein, an athlete so nimble that he was the star wide receiver of his high school football team.

In Maryland coach Mark Turgeon's first season, Noel and Cauley-Stein would have represented a mismatch nightmare for the Terps. A year later, however, Turgeon has reason to believe his team can compete.

Up next
Maryland vs. No. 3 Kentucky
Barclays Center Classic
When » Friday, 8:30 p.m.
Where » Barclays Center,
Brooklyn, N.Y.
TV » ESPN

Sophomore Alex Len, (7-1), has put on 30 pounds and grown in many other ways. Freshmen Shaquille Cleare, 6-9, and Charles Mitchell, 6-8, are built like NFL tight ends. And 6-8 senior James Padgett will be the most experienced frontcourt player on the floor Friday.

"I like our bigs. We got some depth. We got some strength," Turgeon said. "They have confidence, and I know they're looking forward to the challenge."

Challenge indeed. Kentucky is ranked third in the preseason thanks to another loaded freshman class that includes 6-7 Alex Poythress and 6-4 Archie Goodwin, both rated among the top six in the nation in their class by draftexpress.com.

If there is a good time to catch such a team, however, it's in a season opener as Kentucky coach John Calipari is blending a new cast. The Wildcats are the only BCS conference team that does not return a player who started a game last season. In addition, Calipari announced Thursday that backcourt transfers and rotation players Ryan Harrow (N.C. State) and Julius Mays (Wright State) are questionable.

"We're beyond [starting from] scratch," Calipari said. "I could start four freshmen, and you goofballs are saying we're in the top five in the country. Are you crazy? We don't know what we're going to be. I like my team. We're just not very good right now."

One thing Kentucky will have from the start is a unique dimension, playing dual shot blockers in Noel and Cauley-Stein. In two exhibition games, they often have been on the court simultaneously, though Cauley-Stein has come off the bench. In 54 minutes, Noel has hit 15 of 17 shots, scored 32 points, grabbed 15 rebounds and blocked five shots. In 49 minutes, Cauley-Stein has hit seven of eight shots, scored 20 points, collected 13 rebounds and blocked two shots.

"This Nerlens Noel kid is one of the best I've ever seen," Turgeon said. "He just changes games. He's a special breed. So that is a concern of mine -- how we're gonna score around the rim against these guys."

Coming to the Terps' aid on the perimeter is Dez Wells. On Wednesday the sophomore transfer from Xavier was declared eligible to play immediately. Before choosing Maryland this summer, the 6-5 Wells was courted by Kentucky.

"People don't understand what Dez does to their team," Calipari said. "They go from a team that was going to be good to a team that can say, 'OK, who in the ACC can't we compete with.'?"

kdunleavy@washingtonexaminer.com

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Kevin Dunleavy

Staff writer - sports
The Washington Examiner