At times during his shortened freshman season with the Maryland men’s basketball team, Alex Len appeared timid, especially on the road. He was adjusting to the language, often unable to understand Coach Mark Turgeon’s play-calls, so the Ukrainian 7-footer simply went out and played basketball.
But the new Alex Len showed up Friday night, a bulked-up force who had a nationally televised coming-out party, even if his Terrapins couldn’t quite get over the hump against defending national champion Kentucky in a 72-69 loss.
Coach Mark Turgeon had raved all preseason about Len’s added weight and new dimensions, his face-up game and new-found comfort. All that came together at Barclays Center.
He dominated the boards and was effective from the field, crowing at monstrous dunks that sent the Terrapins faithful abuzz at their sophomore who outplayed Kentucky freshman Nerlens Noel, the nation’s top recruit.
Len kept the Terps close in the first half with an array of spin moves and dunks, even flashing a feathery 18-foot jumper from the left wing. He finished with a game-high 23 points and 12 rebounds.
“Alex was great,” Turgeon said. “I thought we ran a few things for him in the second half, helped him get some easy ones. I was proud of his rebounding, rebounded great for us tonight, four blocks, something you’re going to see. He was a huge weapon for us tonight. It’s the most he’s played, 32 minutes. He played better tonight than at any time he did last year. I expect great things from him. Hopefully we can give him more help on the perimeter as we move forward.
A quiet sophomore – partly because of the language barrier, partly due to his personality – Len had come out of his shell throughout the preseason, unveiling charisma and a deadpan love for all types of fried fowl. Crediting hard work for his elevated confidence, Len is undoubtedly more comfortable in his second season under Turgeon.
“He’s just playing hard, working hard,” senior James Padgett said. “I knew he had a high ceiling, but once he developed and got comfortable with an American coach, I just think it made the game easier for him.
“He was doing a great job in the first half, kept things going for us when we couldn’t get any shot. He was getting points and rebounds and blocked shots. When things weren’t going good, he stepped up for us.”
Len deflected all praise after the game, saying he “didn’t think” about himself. Battling down low against Noel? Now that’s another story.
“It was special to play against him,” Len said. “He is one of the best big men in the country and it was great to play against him.
“Before the game, I just wanted to give him maximum effort for my team, which I think I did.”
Noel, who battled foul trouble in the first half, finished just 2 for 6 from the field and 0 for 3 from the free throw line in 26 minutes. It was a much-hyped matchup that Len won running away.
“I was proud of Alex,” Turgeon said. “Last year, sometimes on the big stage away from home, he wasn’t as good. He grew up tonight. That was good to see.”
Standing in the hallway outside Barclays Center, wearing a puffy vest and dwelling on the season-opening loss, Len was asked if he felt comfortable becoming Maryland’s go-to offensive weapon, especially when the Terps’ outside shooters struggled like they did Friday.
The answer? Of course he does.