COLLEGE PARK, MD--In a quiet moment after the Maryland Terrapins beat Virginia Tech a little over a week ago, redshirt freshman forward Ashton Pankey commented on his teammate Alex Len. At the time, Len was struggling, unable to keep up against opposing big men, appearing lost on the offensive end of the court.
Pankey said that Len was suffering from a slump, and that all players go through it. Len needed to adapt to the speed of play in the ACC, and that adjustment can be hard. Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said similar things, and hoped Len would be able to catch up as the season went on.
Funny how time changes things. In back to back ACC games, Len has played a more prominent role for the Terps. His improved play started in a 90-86 double-overtime loss against the Miami Hurricanes and continued in a home loss to the North Carolina Tar Heels.
"I think he's starting to get the speed and tempo of the game. He's brand new here and he probably didn't expect this type of tempo," senior captain Sean Mosley said of Len adjusting to conference play. "I think he's starting to make that adjustment. He's been great for us the last two games and hopefully he continues to get better each and every game, which I know he will."
Though Len's improvement did not equal Maryland wins, the defensive presence and soft shooting touch from the 7'1" Ukrainian may provide a platform a young Terp team can build on for the future.
Against North Carolina, Len finished the game with 12 points, nine rebounds and four blocks in just 26 minutes. He scored in a variety of ways, including knocking down open jump shots from outside the lane, showing a smooth stroke. Over time, Len's shooting ability will pull big-bodied defenders out of the lane, perhaps freeing up slashers like Nick Faust and Mychal Parker with lanes to attack the rim.
"Alex can help our team out a lot," junior James Padgett said of Len. "I'm happy for Alex, his confidence is coming back."
Against the Tar Heels, Len also showed off a nice post move and hook shot. A hook shot from a seven-footer can be almost unguardable, as Len proved hitting the hook over Carolina's future lottery pick front line of John Henson and Tyler Zeller. In comments after the game Maryland coach Mark Turgeon complimented Len's aggressiveness against UNC, saying his assertive play allowed the Terps more options.
The conference's leading scorer, Terrell Stoglin, echoed those comments.
"He showed that he's a good player," Stoglin said after the UNC game. "A lot of people were kind of doubting [Len] when it came to ACC play. He played against some of the top big men in the conference and did a great job."
Defensively, the four blocks do not accurately account for Len's impact. On countless shots, Len's extensive reach affected shooters as they drifted into the paint. To make an impact like Len did in the Carolina game, against a team stocked with NBA-level talent, bodes well for Maryland. Next year, with the addition of Shaquille Cleare and older, stronger versions of Len, Pankey, and Padgett, the Maryland front line will be big, deep and physical.
"He definitely helped us out down inside," Mosley said.
Len saved some of his best play of the season for the opportunities to guard Zeller. When Maryland took the lead in the first half against Carolina, the initial surge came with Len guarding the UNC forward. By contrast, with Len starting the game on the bench, Zeller opened with six points and two rebounds before Maryland's freshman center checked in at the 15:48 mark of the first half. Zeller's next two possessions started with a contested jumpshot that clanged off the rim followed by a turnover. Zeller still ended up leading the Heels in scoring, but while Len guarded him, Carolina's senior seven-footer clearly looked flustered. Not bad for a freshman.
"Alex played well. I'm proud of him. He's young," Turgeon said. "He played against two really good players and he held his own. A lot of positives."
For this Maryland team, the NCAA tournament is probably not a reality. An NIT bid, however, is within reach. For a player like Alex Len, the opportunity to play more minutes this season holds real value. Len is still learning the American game, and he needs the work.
Participating in big games against ACC competition and a run in the nation's secondary college hoops tournament could prepare Len and the Terps for far more important tournaments in the future.
For more news, analysis, and discussion on the Terrapins, please visit SB Nation's Maryland blog, Testudo Times. For the opponent's perspective, check out SB Nation's UNC blog,Carolina March. For all your NCAA hoops news this weekend, be sure to follow along with SB Nation's college basketball hub.