Topping 7 feet tall, Alex Len is a towering figure on the college basketball landscape.
When considering his raw athleticism and evolving inside-out tools, it's easy to see why the Maryland center has NBA scouts salivating. There's size, skill and room to grow. The full package.
But when the Terrapins played at Duke three weeks ago, Len shrank under the lights of Cameron Indoor Stadium. Fellow lottery prospect Mason Plumlee picked on the Ukrainian to the tune of 19 points, Len finished with just eight, and the Terps endured a 20-point setback.
So before Saturday's rematch at Comcast Center, Maryland coach Mark Turgeon prodded his sophomore big man.
"I challenged Alex about being Mason Plumlee's little brother," Turgeon recalled. "And he said, 'I'm tired of being a little brother since I've been here. It's time for us to step up and act like we're one of the big guys on the block.'"
During Maryland's 83-81 upset of No. 2 Duke, he did just that. As Plumlee notched just four points, Len paced the Terps with 19 points on 6-of-8 shooting while adding nine rebounds and three blocks.
For a Maryland team desperately in need of a signature win to boost its NCAA tournament resume, the timing was opportune for Turgeon to spark Len's most complete performance of conference play.
"He was just on me," Len said of his coach. "He wanted me to be tougher. He wanted me to respond and be strong."
Len said he prepared for Duke by watching film of Maryland's 80-69 loss to Virginia on Feb. 10. The problem during his nine-point effort that day? "The guys couldn't give me the ball."
So against the Blue Devils, Len showed for the ball with authority. And he took it right at Plumlee, who fouled out in the final minute, from beginning to end.
As guard Seth Allen put it, "Alex just kept on attacking him."
"Alex was motivated, and he paid attention to what he did wrong the last game," senior forward James Padgett said. "He stepped it up, executed and did what he had to do."
With the Terps (18-7, 6-6 ACC) sitting right on the tournament bubble, they'll need more of the same. Len has been held to single digits in each of Maryland's past three losses, and more off nights could be crippling — even amid a soft schedule to close the regular season.
Assertiveness from Len can no longer be a variable in Maryland's equation. It must be a constant.
"We've got to be on the same level against teams maybe not as good as Duke," Len said. "You've got to be ready to play your best every game, every night."
On Saturday, Len's best featured savvy post moves, vivacious dunks and defense-stretching jumpers. He also went 7 for 8 from the line, saying postgame that he made 468 of 500 free throws in practice last week.
No, Len hasn't looked much like a lottery pick for swaths of ACC play. But going into Tuesday's trip to Boston College (11-14, 3-9), Maryland fans will hope Saturday was the start of Len living up to that billing.
"I've been on Alex pretty hard, and I'm going to stay on him," Turgeon said. "For us to have a chance to make a run down the stretch here, we need Alex to play at that level."
© Copyright 2016 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.