Perhaps Alex Len has become a microcosm of the Maryland basketball team’s recent struggles, which have been amplified because of the early-season hype for both. Already considered a legitimate NBA prospect in a relatively weak 2013 draft class, Len soared into top five discussion after hanging 23 points and 12 rebounds on Kentucky during the Terrapins’ season opener on Nov. 9.
His stock rose further as scouts drooled over his athleticism and touch, filling seats on press row at Comcast Center to catch a glimpse of the next big European import. Young 7-foot-1 centers like Len are typically evaluated based on potential rather than collegiate production, but is it possible that, like what has happened with the Terrapins after a breezy nonconference schedule gave way to a sobering grind through eight ACC games, the expectations leapt ahead of reality?
In past games, when Len has disappeared for stretches on the offensive end, be it because he tried to finesse things too much or because his teammates simply couldn’t complete an effective post-entry pass, Coach Mark Turgeon seemed content chalking it up to an anomaly, insistent Len would do better. But after Maryland’s 73-71 loss to Florida State, when foul trouble limited Len to 17 minutes (tying his season low), Turgeon seemed far more somber about his sophomore center than he’s ever been this season.
“Everybody says he’s one of our best [players]. I keep reading about it,” Turgeon said. “Yeah, it was a disappointing night. Fouling, silly fouls, over the back, reaching in, post defense, takes two dribbles back and shoots a 17-footer. I didn’t even recognize him. It was tough. I don’t have an answer. Thankfully for us James [Padgett] played his tail off, Shaq [Cleare] was really good and Charles [Mitchell] was really good. We have some depth there. We were going to play our depth.
“But we were just begging Alex: ‘You’ve got to give us something, you have to play better. If you play better, we’re going to win game.’ And he didn’t.”
Harsh. And if only it were that simple.
Perhaps Turgeon’s frustration Wednesday night — quite possibly an uncharacteristic heat-of-the-moment takedown — came because Len simply has proven himself to be better. Turgeon spent the preseason raving about the sophomore’s added strength and confidence, saying fans would see a different player than the tentative freshman of 2011-12. But Turgeon has since begun tempering expectations, especially during performance lulls, coinciding with a similar tactic toward the team at large. With all the excitement surrounding Len and Maryland, the cart (hype) got before the horse (Len/Maryland), as Turgeon likes to say.
That the Terps held an eight-point second-half lead over the Seminoles with Len relegated to the bench says plenty about their collective resiliency, but it’s clear that they operate most effectively when Len’s at his best. Except that typically comes in bursts, the dominance rarely sustained for an entire game. He’s been exceptional at times, turning in five double-doubles this season and reaching double figures 16 times. He’s thrown down highlight-reel dunks and set off a court-storm against North Carolina State, an emotional high that by now seems so long ago.
The feathery step-back jumper and hook shot that still has scouts raving? Sure, that’s still there, and when on full display it’s still pretty. But there moments like Wednesday, when Len had a season-low four points, both field goals coming in a 48-second span that gave Maryland a 62-54 lead, its largest after halftime. Since ACC play began, Len is averaging 2.5 turnovers per game. Before conference play? Just 1.1.
“Everyone has bad games, and we expect Alex to bounce back and play hard,” forward James Padgett said. “Everyone, from time to time, will have a bad game.”
Then, when Len slipped free with 13 seconds left, perfectly executing the high screen he couldn’t quite muster during the waning seconds in the Terps’ first meeting with Florida State, a dunk attempt that would have given Maryland a three-point lead instead banged off the rim. A jump ball later, the Seminoles called a timeout and began scheming their game-winning possession.
“Ran the last play for him. Arguably he’s one of our best players,” Turgeon said. “You get a 7-foot-2 guy a shot six inches from the rim, you think he’s going to make it. Nick [Faust] made a heck of a pass. It was great execution on our team’s part. It’s just hard right now. Got guys crying in the locker room. They’re frustrated. We’re just not quite good enough yet. It’s a fine line, and we got to figure it out.”
The high-horse approach of “Think it’s tough now? Wait until you see NBA centers” might ultimately prove true. Or maybe not. But it’s a fruitless exercise to entertain at this stage, when the basic truth remains that the Terps are most dangerous with Len at his best, which he simply wasn’t Wednesday night.