Maryland basketball still unsure about Alex Len’s eligibility as start of practice nears


First-year Maryland Coach Mark Turgeon does his round of interviews on media day. Friday marks the official start of practice. (Jonathan Newton/WASHINGTON POST)
October 12, 2011

With five weeks before its Nov. 13 season opener, Maryland still doesn’t know whether Alex Len, the 7-foot-1 Ukrainian center whose signing in late August represented such promise, will be eligible to play a full season, a partial season or not at all.

First-year Coach Mark Turgeon, speaking at Wednesday’s preseason media day, said he expects the NCAA Clearinghouse, which is reviewing documents that vouch for Len’s amateur status, to makes its initial ruling Friday — the day Division I college basketball practice officially gets under way.

Friday’s decision is the first step of a two-step process to get Len in the lineup. If he’s initially ruled ineligible, as Turgeon said is possible, the matter will be referred to a committee for further study, with a final decision expected within a week.

“It’s hard to say; so much is out of our control,” Turgeon said of Len, who has taken part in team and individual drills th last six weeks. “It could be zero games [Len is required by the NCAA to sit out]. It could be four games. It could be a year. But we feel very strong about our case. Hopefully we’ll get a positive outcome, and it won’t be much more than zero [games] he has to sit.”

Len, whose English is limited, was present Wednesday but not made available to reporters.

Maryland players were enthusiastic about what Len would bring to the team, which is currently anchored inside by 6-10 center Berend Weijs, who has gotten stronger over the summer but struggled to add appreciable bulk. He’s up from 200 to 210 pounds.

“He’s a very big key for us,” sophomore Terrell Stoglin said of Len, “because we need that height, and we need his skills.”

Maryland basketball has lost a tremendous amount in the last six months: Gary Williams, its coach of 22 years; Jordan Williams, last season’s leading scorer and rebounder; and rising sophomore Hauk Palsson, a versatile guard with undeniable big-game toughness.

Since arriving in May, Turgeon has cobbled together a roster of eight scholarship players (nine, if Len is ruled eligible) and six walk-ons. But he was forced to abandon his stop-gap solution for the squad’s lack of height — leaning heavily on a four-guard offense — when Palsson, a native of Iceland, announced in August that he was turning pro abroad rather than returning to school. With just five guards in the rotation, Turgeon explained, that was one too few to sustain a four-guard system.

There are few reasons to feel bullish about the Terps’ prospects this season, with only two returning starters (senior Sean Mosley and Stoglin) from a team that finished 19-14 overall, 7-9 in ACC play and was snubbed by the NIT after being passed over for an NCAA tournament berth.

Turgeon described Len as “extremely skilled, extremely long,” as well as a strong shot-blocker and defender.

Regarding the rest of the team, Turgeon said redshirt freshman Ashton Pankey has made great strides over the summer, was playing pain free and, at the moment, was the squad’s best rebounder and a terrific defender.

Mosley has emerged as the team’s leader, and Turgeon said he’d be counting on the senior to score a bit more this season.

As for Stoglin, Turgeon said the guard needed to think about scoring less and focus more on playing defense and helping the team without the ball in his hands.

In general, Turgeon said he had found that Maryland’s guards weren’t as great as billed and its big men weren’t as bad. Asked about the team’s lack of size, Turgeon said he was less concerned with that than he was ball-handling and decision-making.

“Coach Turgeon is very direct,” said guard Pe’Shon Howard. “He tells you exactly what’s on his mind. He tells you exactly what he thinks about you messing up. . . . He told me, ‘Don’t turn the ball over! If you want to play, don’t turn the ball over.’ He told me if I don’t turn the ball over, I could be on the court as much as I wanted to be.”

Terrapins note: Friday’s Maryland Madness celebration at Comcast Center will be highlighted by the return of nearly all members of the 2002 NCAA championship team and an alumni game that will include Juan Dixon, Steve Francis, Greivis Vasquez and Eric Hayes, among others.

Liz Clarke currently covers the Washington Redskins for The Washington Post, she has also covered five Olympic Games, two World Cups and written extensively about college sports, tennis and auto racing.
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