Center struggling as Terps get ready for ACC play
Last year, Alex Len's worries were basic. He was adapting to college at Maryland, as well as a new country, a new language and a new basketball team. This year, his concerns are more advanced: double teams, foul trouble and maintaining focus on the present when millions of dollars are in his future.
In a span of roughly 18 months in College Park, it has been a lot to handle for the 7-foot-1 sophomore from the Ukraine. Bouts with inconsistency were to be expected.
But as Maryland (12-1) gets to the business end of its schedule, playing its ACC opener Saturday against Virginia Tech (9-4), the Terrapins are looking for more from their most talented player, a likely lottery pick in the NBA Draft whenever he decides the time is right.
|Virginia Tech at Maryland|
|When » Saturday, noon|
|Where » Comcast Center|
|TV » Ch. 5|
Len leads Maryland in points (13.3 pg), rebounds (8.0 pg) and blocks (2.3 pg). But passive recent performances have drawn the attention of Maryland coach Mark Turgeon. Against Delaware State on Saturday, Len had six points and two rebounds, both season lows, and was benched for a long stretch of the first half. After Len scored nine points and grabbed five rebounds Tuesday in a rout of IUPUI, Turgeon second-guessed his decision to start Len in the second half over freshman Shaquille Cleare.
"Alex hasn't played well. Quite frankly, I'm not gonna call a play for him if he's not playing well," Turgeon said. "Shaq's down there, swiveling, getting on bodies, and we're throwing it to him, and he's scoring more in less or equal minutes. They doubled him some. I'm not concerned about it."
As the tallest player on the floor and the target of opposing team's defenses in games against overmatched competition, Len often finds himself shaking off smaller players, who appear to be doing chin-ups on his biceps.
Maryland point guard Pe'Shon Howard said that getting the ball to Len hasn't been easy with smaller teams employing zone defenses designed to play keep away. Len's best performances have come against quality teams such as Kentucky (23 points, 12 rebounds, four blocks), Northwestern (13 points, 13 rebounds) and Stony Brook (19 points, nine rebounds).
"[IUPUI] kind of sagged in and had three little guys guarding him. I threw a pass to him, and he had to catch it up high and bring the ball down," Howard said. "I think it's just matchups. He's more comfortable playing against a 7-footer at Kentucky or Northwestern. It's hard to play a 6-6 center with 6-3 guys sitting in your lap."
Against Virginia Tech on Saturday, Len will go up against players such as 6-9 junior Cadarian Raines, 6-8 sophomore C.J. Barksdale and 6-10 freshman Joey Van Zegeren. Against any of those Hokies, Len will have a significant edge in height, skill and mobility. The ACC opener is a good time for Maryland to establish its offensive identity, playing through Len.
Terps sophomore Dez Wells expects Len's performance to rise with the level of competition.
"He needs to play against guys that are as good as him or may not be as good as him but think they are as good as him -- basically more confident opponents," Wells said. "When we play against the Dukes, the Carolinas, the N.C. States, you'll see his true colors."