COLLEGE PARK, Md. — Perhaps a statement from an athlete has never been more accurate.
“I’m ready to play.”
The words were uttered to close a video package before starting lineups were introduced Wednesday night at Comcast Center. The words were uttered by freshman Alex Len ahead of his long-awaited debut for the University of Maryland.
Len saw his first action as a Terrapin after missing the team’s first 10 games due to suspension. (The NCAA suspended him for a violation of amateurism guidelines based on club team play in his native Ukraine.)
He didn’t disappoint.
Len showed just how ready he was when he stuffed home an alley-oop pass from Sean Mosley just 54 seconds into the game. The surprisingly large Winter Break crowd exploded and a likely love affair was officially underway.
The early electricity was possible because head coach Mark Turgeon decided to start Len in his debut, a decision that was apparently weeks in the making.
“I kind of decided two weeks ago that I probably should (start Alex Len) because in the long run, he has the potential to be pretty good and be our best guy” Turgeon said after the win. “I didn’t know who I was going to start, but I knew I was going to start Alex.”
The big man would go on to score 14 points, grab eight rebounds and add three blocks as the Terrapins (8-3) would pull away from the University of Albany (7-6) 83-72. With the debut of Len and the return of injured G Pe’Shon Howard just days earlier, the Terps finally had their full complement of eight scholarship players and posted their first double digit victory of the season.
Len didn’t necessary “lead” the Terrapins to the win over the Great Danes (G Terrell Stoglin once again posted a team high with 22 points and Howard scored 11 to go with a Maryland season high eight assists), but it was clear to his teammates that Len’s presence made a significant difference.
“It opened up the plays more” noted Stoglin. “It gave us more opportunities to get into the game. We are a deeper team now with a good bench. We are looking more like a team now.”
Specifically, Stoglin said “Alex is an offensive threat. He is a great passer. If we get him the ball down low we can expect it to get back to us. We can play inside-out more now.”
While Len didn’t record an assist in the final stats, he certainly displayed a level of passing that helped the team settle more into a half-court offense.
As a point guard, Howard said he deliberately worked to get the ball inside to Len early on. “That was one of my goals. I wanted to get everyone involved. Coach (Turgeon) told us that adding another piece, we were almost starting over.”
Howard appreciated what the team received from the new big man.
“He was very impressive. When we were eating (pregame meal) he seemed nervous. He said during Midnight Madness he was very nervous and shaky. In practice he was doing well but we weren’t sure how he was going to handle the game. The first play was the alley-oop. He came out and played very well. I was happy for him because of everything he has been through. He has gone through all the practice without playing which is tough.”
Len was not made available to the media after the game as he still works to get past the language barrier. He didn’t really need to speak for his immediate impact to be understand.
Late in the second half, Maryland students began a “We love Alex” chant after Turgeon substituted him out during an offensive/defensive switch. His every move was met with anticipation from the crowd. There was a sense of significance to his presence throughout the game.
This Maryland team is still establishing what they have the potential to be during Atlantic Coast Conference season. It is significant that they have two more games to play outside of the ACC (Samford Saturday and Cornell January 3rd) to allow them to keep adjusting to the return of Howard and addition of Len. Turgeon said he expected to further tinker with the starting lineup (senior G Sean Mosley and redshirt freshman F Ashton Pankey joined Len, Howard & Stoglin Wednesday night) and would like to see the deeper group run a bit more.
The anchor appears to be Len, whose 7’1″, 225 pound frame won’t always be more beefy than opponents, but who showed the necessary aggressiveness to compete with even those who will be capable of matching up against him.
Len has never matched up with the likes of North Carolina’s Tyler Zeller or Duke’s Mason Plumlee and will still have much to do when it comes to acclimating himself to ACC basketball. Humorously, Turegon said that an offensive goaltending call on Len in Wednesday night’s win would not have been whistled in the Ukraine, but instead would have been applauded as a play that counted for two points.
It is hard to prevent wild expectations for the young man given the wild nature of his already existing legend. Great Danes coach Will Brown said he received an impressive scouting report on Len just before his team faced the big man.
“20 minutes before the game, I guess (Maryland assistant) Scott Spinelli tells my assistant that (former Kansas & NBA coach) Larry Brown was at practice the other day and said the kid’s going to be a lottery pick. That’s the last thing you want to hear about the opposing team when you know nothing about him and you’re about to take the court.”
Brown’s own assessment after the game seemed to match that of the Hall of Famer.
“That kid’s going to be good. He might be a lottery pick one day with his frame and skill.”
This is usually the part where I bring the expectations back to earth, but perhaps even I will have to defer to the coaches. It was just one game, but this kid could truly make a difference for a rebuilding Maryland program.