With the start of conference play looming, most college basketball teams are fine-tuning their starting lineups. But 11 days before Maryland opens ACC play, the Terrapins are in the throes of overhauling theirs.
On Wednesday against Albany, Maryland (7-3) will add its second prospective starter in as many games, with 7-foot-1 freshman center Alex Len making his debut after serving a 10-game suspension for running afoul of NCAA eligibility rules while competing in his native Ukraine.
“It’s not starting over,” Maryland Coach Mark Turgeon said during a conference call Tuesday, “but I kind of feel that way, at times.”
It was just last week that the Terrapins gained the services of presumptive starting point guard Pe’shon Howard, who broke his left foot in late October. Howard played a key role Friday in helping Maryland squeak past Radford, 65-60, but he wasn’t in peak form, understandably. And the reshuffling of the roles and rotation throughout the roster seemed to throw off all the guards a bit.
Now comes an even bigger potential curve ball in Len, who, according to Turgeon and several teammates, has proven far more than a big body in practice.
“He’s very skilled,” Turgeon said. “He can shoot the ball, dribble it and pass it. He has a good understanding of the game. . . . And the more he feels comfortable as we go forward, the more you’ll see those skills.”
Said Howard, following the victory over Radford: “When Alex is playing, I can’t put into words how much of a difference he makes. When we went hard [in practice], and Alex was on the floor, we looked like a completely different team.”
But it’s unclear how long it will take the 18-year-old native Russian speaker, who is immersed in learning English as well as a new style of basketball, to feel comfortable in games. And it’s unclear how long will it take his teammates to adapt to the adjustments in strategy that will invariably result.
Turgeon said Len had competed well in practice and worked particularly hard to get in game shape in recent weeks. But when the team regrouped for practice Monday at 10 a.m., the coach said, Len looked nervous.
“Like any freshman — and, I’d add, any freshman that missed his first 10 games — it’s going to be a process,” Turgeon said. “Some games he’ll be better than others. . . . But you’re going to see tremendous improvement as the year goes forward.”
Turgeon said he wasn’t sure whether Len would start Wednesday. Regardless, Turgeon noted, his mere addition would add sorely needed depth to the squad, as well as shot-blocking ability to complement that of 6-10 center Berend Weijs.
“Just his length and size is an impact,” Turgeon said. “What we’ll try to do eventually is run our offense through him. Now most of it is run through” guard Terrell Stoglin.
As for the rest of the squad, Turgeon said he had no way of predicting whether the next three nonconference games — against Albany (7-5), Samford on Saturday and Cornell on Jan. 3 — would offer enough time for the revamped Terrapins to take shape for their Jan. 8 ACC-opener at North Carolina State.
“We’re not improving at the rate I thought we would,” Turgeon said. “We’re not playing where I thought we would. I’ve been a little disappointed recently. If our guys can grow up and get a lot out of these game, we [can become] a much better team.”