Maryland’s Alex Len makes progress as he adjusts to ACC basketball

John McDonnell/The Washington Post - Maryland freshman Alex Len has had two strong games as a simplified game plan and his growing confidence help him with the rigors of ACC basketball.

Two games in a college basketball season hardly signify a trend. But as Maryland looks for positives amid a spate of recent losses, the resurgence of 7-foot-1 center Alex Len offers reason to believe, as senior Sean Mosley insists, that the Terps still have a chance to fashion a special ending from a 13-9, 3-5 start.

After a six-game streak in which the freshman was reduced to a footnote, failing to score more than five points in an outing, Len has bounced back impressively.

(Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post) - “He has got all the tools,” Maryland Coach Mark Turgeon said of Alex Len. “It’s just a matter of relaxing.”

(Ethan Hyman/Associated Press) - North Carolina State's C.J. Leslie dunks on Maryland's Alex Len, who is adjusting to the physical, up-tempo nature of ACC basketball.

Though not fully in game shape after missing the first 10 contests because of an NCAA suspension, the 225-pound Len played 31 minutes in Maryland’s 90-86 double-overtime loss at Miami, scoring 11 points, grabbing seven rebounds and blocking four shots despite smothering coverage by the Hurricanes’ 284-pound center Reggie Johnson.

And Len stood tall Saturday at Comcast Center against North Carolina’s imposing front court of 7-0 Tyler Zellerand 6-11 John Henson. Though Maryland fell to the No. 5 Tar Heels, 83-74, after building a nine-point lead, Len flashed his offensive skill with an early jumper and driving for another score and flexed his defensive muscle by blocking a game-high four shots and grabbing a team-high nine rebounds to go with his 12 points.

It’s difficult to know how Len views his progress 12 games into his Terrapin career. Maryland officials have not made the Ukraine native available to reporters all season, explaining that he needs time to acclimate to college life and that his language skills are still evolving.

But in the view of Coach Mark Turgeon and several teammates, Len’s strides are due primarily to two factors: a simplified game plan (at least as it relates to Len) and the freshman’s growing confidence that he can compete in a more physical, up-tempo brand of basketball than he played in Eastern Europe.

“He has got all the tools,” Turgeon said Monday. “It’s just a matter of relaxing.”

Offered redshirt freshman Ashton Pankey: “He’s playing with confidence now and learning the physicality of the game. He’s still getting Americanized.”

Len’s learning curve was painful to watch at times and hardly helped by the fact that it got off to a late start. Because Len didn’t arrive in College Park until August, he missed the Terps’ summer workouts that surely would have added sorely needed bulk. Then he was held out of games until Dec. 28 after the NCAA ruled he had violated eligibility standards while playing for his Ukrainian club team.

Inserted into the starting lineup for his debut, Len thrilled the Comcast crowd with a rim-rattling dunk on his first sprint to the basket. But as the season unfolded, he picked up too many quick fouls and struggled to grasp American goaltending rules.

“Sometimes when he catches the ball, he looks like the whole world is moving too fast for him,” Turgeon said.

So the coach altered the world — to the extent he could — to suit Len.

First, he pulled him from the starting lineup, suspecting it was saddling the freshman with unnecessary pressure. And he streamlined what he asked Len to do. Instead of teaching the center three ways to guard a ball screen, for example, Turgeon focused on one.

Coaches spent extra time on “toughness” drills with Len in practice, and Len started coming in more on his own for additional work. And as Turgeon hoped, each baby-step helped build Len’s confidence.

Assuming Len stays in College Park this summer to attend class and work out with his teammates, as expected, Turgeon predicted Monday that he’ll return for his sophomore season physically transformed. Along with the matriculation of 6-9, 280-pound Shaquille Cleare, a tougher Alex Len would be a chief reason Terps could be resurgent in the 2012-13 season.

But as much as he loves Maryland, Mosley can’t afford to wait until next season for a breakthrough. The Terps’ captain, due to graduate this spring, believes it’s closer at hand.

“There’s definitely something special to come in the end of the season,” Mosley said. “And it’s going to start tomorrow at Clemson (11-11, 3-5). We’re going to go down there and get our first road win and get ready to play the next opponent.”

 
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