Alex Len offered a few words for a pretaped message before his debut. Then the center’s skillset said even more in his college debut.
The 7-foot-1 Ukrainian immediately entered the starting lineup scored 14 points and added eight rebounds as Maryland fended off Albany 83-72 as the Terrapins both fielded a full roster and won by double figures for the first time all season.
“We’re just a totally different team,” coach Mark Turgeon said.
The Terps’ metamorphosis from an undermanned bunch with obvious limitations to an intriguing team that could provide frustration in the months to come occurred in just a week, and so much of it had to do with Len.
It’s not to say Maryland (8-3) won’t have problems, or even temporarily succumb to lingering issues over the final two-thirds of the season. It happened plenty of times against the Great Danes (7-6), who erased a 13-point deficit and briefly led in the second half.
Len, though, will make it much more difficult to tangle with the Terps.
Chances are, he won’t be as anxious as he was Wednesday. Of course, opposing coaches might have a little less to feel uneasy about simply because the uncertainty surrounding Maryland’s mystery man has dissipated.
Little good it did Albany coach Will Brown.
“You can Google him and see all the nice things that Fran Fraschilla says about him, and then 20 minutes before the game I guess [Maryland assistant] Scott Spinelli tells my assistant that Larry Brown was at practice the other day and said the kid’s going to be a lottery pick,” Will Brown said. “That’s the last thing you want to year about the opposing team when you know nothing about him.”
Of course, it wasn’t a matter of poor preparation for the Great Danes. Len signed with Maryland in August but the NCAA clearinghouse plodded along as it considered his case. The organization eventually declared Len ineligible for the first 10 games of the season, a significant price for a Terps team that couldn’t spare any extra bodies.
After a 16-minute cameo in an exhibition game in November, Len wasn’t seen on the court until warm-ups on Wednesday. Nor did he speak publicly; Maryland declined all interview requests for Len preceding his debut.
Len did offer up a message on the Comcast Center video board just before Maryland’s starting lineup was introduced.
“Hey Terp fans, I’m ready to play,” Len boomed.
Indeed he was.
Coupled with an improved performance from guard Pe’Shon Howard (11 points, six rebounds, eight assists), Len settled in as central point in the suddenly up-tempo Terps’ offense. Less than a minute in, he provided a one-handed slam off a feed from Sean Mosley. Before the first media timeout, he uncorked a 12-foot baseline jumper.
Much of his night was spent dunking, with his five turnovers a byproduct of some overaggressive play. But there were signs he could eventually transform the Terps’ frontcourt, a reality that led Turgeon to thrust Len into the spotlight quickly.
“I decided two weeks ago in practice I probably should because in the long run, he’s potentially got the chance to be pretty good and be our best guy,” Turgeon said. “I changed our lineup 17,000 times in the last [few days], it felt like. I was losing sleep over it. We were so inconsistent in practice. I didn’t know who to start, but I knew I was going to start Alex.”
Len wasn’t the answer to everything, just as Howard didn’t solve all of Maryland’s problems when he made his season debut last week against Radford after missing nine games with a broken foot. But he surely helped.
In the second half, it was James Padgett (13 points, seven rebounds) who emerged as the Terps’ crucial low-post element. Like fellow bigs Ashton Pankey and Berend Weijs, Padgett logged less than his season average in minutes with a new arrival in the rotation.
It hardly mattered. Len’s addition provided a message louder than anything he could possibly say: Maryland’s frontcourt just got a whole lot more interesting – and imposing.
“When Alex was out, he was my biggest supporter,” Padgett said. “Every day before a game, he said ‘Padge, can you get a double-double for me?’ and I would say ‘I’ll try.’ He’s my biggest supporter, so now that he’s back playing I’m his biggest supporter.”
After a stout debut, Padgett surely will have some competition for that honor.