- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 12, 2011

One word is intrinsically linked to Ashton Pankey’s basketball career since he committed to Maryland: Injured.

He missed his entire senior year of high school and played three minutes for the Terrapins before receiving a medical hardship waiver last season.

Now, the 6-foot-9, 225-pounder is a crucial element in Maryland’s frontcourt picture. He’s also, at long last, pain-free.

“It’s been rough,” Pankey said Wednesday during the Terps’ media day at Comcast Center. “I’m used to playing. I’m not used to being hurt. A lot of people think I’ve gotten a lot of injuries throughout my career, but I haven’t.”

One big injury, though, plagued him the past two years.

He suffered from shin splints in high school and eventually was shut down as a senior after the injury progressed. Then he came to Maryland, where he was part of a large freshman class.

He made a brief appearance at the end of the Terps’ season-opening rout of Seattle. It was the last he would see the court. Pain soon returned, and he was diagnosed with a hairline fracture of his left tibia. January surgery to insert a rod into his leg ended what little chance he had of contributing.

“There’s not really much treatment you can do,” Pankey said. ” I talked to a lot of different doctors. There’s not really much you can do except stay off of it and not play, and that’s not really one of my options. I basically just forced myself to play, and it got worse and worse.”

Pankey was cleared during a tumultuous offseason. Maryland, which already lost forward Dino Gregory to graduation, saw Jordan Williams declare for the NBA draft after earning first-team all-ACC honors. The Terps also changed coaches, with Gary Williams retiring and Mark Turgeon arriving from Texas A&M.

The loss of two frontcourt mainstays means there’s plenty of playing time available on a roster short on size.

“From what I’ve seen, he’s by far our best rebounder,” Turgeon said. “He played for a great high school coach in Bob Hurley, so I imagine he’s going to be great defensively — team defense, especially. Whenever we do defensive drills, he’s kind of stood out a little bit.”

That could make Pankey a candidate to emerge as a surprise for the Terps. It’s uncertain how the addition of Ukrainian center Alex Len — whose eligibility has yet to be approved — will influence the direction of Maryland’s offense.

Still, Pankey’s defensive presence has the potential to prove valuable.

“He’s a very strong player, and he improved a lot this summer,” senior center Berend Weijs said. “He’s a very strong rebounder. He just knows where the ball is going to fall.”

Now comes the tricky part: Staying on the court. Pankey knows that, more than talent, is the biggest uncertainty surrounding his college career.

“I haven’t played in about two years and there’s a lot of doubters,” Pankey said. “But I’m healthy, and I’m trying to stay healthy, and that’s the biggest thing for me.”

Notes: Turgeon said the Terps are still waiting to hear about Len’s status with the NCAA clearinghouse. Turgeon said he was told the NCAA will make a decision Friday, a choice that likely will render Len ineligible.

From that point, a committee will re-examine the case. Turgeon said that should happen within a week.

“With everything Alex has been through, it could be zero games, it could be four games, it could be a year,” Turgeon said. “But we feel very strong about our case and hopefully we’re going to get a positive outcome, and it won’t be much more than zero if it is more than zero games he has to sit.”

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