There’s no question that 7-foot-1 freshman center Alex Len has been a boon for the Maryland men’s basketball team, adding a powerful presence under the rim that occupies defenders, blocks shots, stuffs putbacks, and slams the dunks and alley-oops that fire up the Terrapins faithful.
In nearly every respect, the Ukrainian big man has made life easier for all his teammates since finally becoming eligible to compete Dec. 28 after serving a 10-game NCAA suspension.
Everyone, that is, except redshirt freshman Ashton Pankey, who has had to surrender some of his playing time and learn a new role, sliding to power forward from center, to make room for Len.
And though Coach Mark Turgeon had prepared Pankey for the adjustment as Len’s debut neared, Pankey concedes that it threw him initially and that he went into a bit of a slump.
“It took a few games,” Pankey said Saturday, “but Alex is a great player.”
After watching from the bench last season with a serious leg injury, Pankey was finally playing significant stretches for the Terrapins, averaging 25 minutes through the first 10 games (not counting the Dec. 4 contest against Notre Dame, in which he was benched after one minute for a rash of mental mistakes).
But over Len’s first four games, Pankey’s playing time dropped to 18.5 minutes per outing. And his attitude suffered, Turgeon intimated on the eve of last week’s ACC home opener against Wake Forest.
“Alex has taken some of Pankey’s minutes — a lot of his touches — so Ashton has got to figure out another way to help us,” Turgeon said. “We can’t sit around and sulk and pout. You’ve got to create ways to be good.”
Turgeon was quick to add that all the roster-shuffling had complicated matters for Pankey, who had worked hard to learn the center’s job only to be asked to start over at power forward.
“He’s playing a different role,” Turgeon said of the 6-9, 220-pound Pankey, a gifted athlete who got his first dunk in seventh grade. “But I’d rather confuse Ashton than Alex right now — fair or unfair.”
With Pankey mentally adrift, senior guard Sean Mosley and other teammates took him aside and reminded him how critical he was to the team’s success. The turnaround was evident in the next game, Wednesday’s 70-64 defeat of Wake Forest, which boosted Maryland’s record to 11-4 overall and 1-1 in the ACC.
Pankey was extremely active from the moment he entered the game, grabbing five of his team-high nine rebounds in the first seven minutes. He finished with nine points (in addition to the nine boards), one assist and a block in 21 minutes’ work.
“I’m trying to learn [power forward] and have the confidence to play [power forward] and let Alex do his thing in the post,” Pankey said Saturday. “It’s all a mental game for me. Once I get past that, maybe one day I’ll be a great player.”
With the Terrapins playing an up-tempo style, sprinting down court for easy transition baskets on every missed Wake Forest shot, Maryland built a 40-24 first-half lead from which the Demon Deacons never recovered. Along the way, the Terrapins won the rebounding battle 45-37.
Rebounding will likely be a key Sunday against Georgia Tech (8-8, 1-1), which on Wednesday beat North Carolina State in Raleigh, 82-71.
Under first-year Coach Brian Gregory, the Yellow Jackets aren’t prolific scorers (64.5 points per game), though 6-5 junior guard Glenn Rice Jr. can get hot, pouring in a career-high 28 points in their 81-74 loss to Duke on Jan. 7. For the most part, Georgia Tech wins with defense and strong rebounding, following a script similar to Maryland’s.
Terrapins note: Turgeon said Saturday that he hadn’t decided whether sophomore guard Terrell Stoglin, Maryland’s leading scorer at 21.3 points per game, would start but that he would surely play. Stoglin is battling a sore back.