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STEVE DESHAZO: For Terrapins to get on a roll, Len can’t let up

ATLANTA—Alex Len’s English is still a bit shaky, and he’s still learning the nuances of American-style basketball.

But this much is clear: When Maryland’s 7-foot-1 Ukrainian import plays well, the Terrapins can play with anyone.

Saturday’s Atlantic Coast Conference quarterfinal with fourth-ranked North Carolina and its imposing front line is a prime example. When the Terps hosted the Tar Heels on Feb. 4, Len had 12 points, nine rebounds and four blocked shots, and Maryland led for much of the day before losing a close decision, 83–74.

Len fouled out of the rematch 25 days later after playing just 16 minutes, and UNC rolled to an 88–64 victory.

“We need him,” redshirt freshman Ashton Pankey said of Len. “He’s got to play with confidence.”

Efforts like the one Len gave in Friday’s 82–60 first-round victory over Wake Forest should add to Len’s growing self-esteem. In 22 minutes, he had seven points and six rebounds, blocked three shots and altered several others. “He was focused today, and he dominated,” teammate James Padgett said.

It marked another step forward in Len’s season-long uphill climb in adapting to a new country, new language and new style of play.

“It was great to see Alex have some success out there,” first-year coach Mark Turgeon said.

Success has been sporadic for Len, whose importance to the Terps increased exponentially when all-ACC forward Jordan Williams bypassed his final two seasons of college eligibility and declared for the NBA draft last May. That set off a chain reaction that saw coach Gary Williams retire and Turgeon arrive from Texas A&M to find a half-empty cupboard featuring little height or experience.

Len could have helped immediately—if he had been eligible. Instead, the NCAA forced him to sit out Maryland’s first 10 games after it found he violated its amatuerism rules. He had practiced with the Terps while his case was under consideration, but not after the ruling was handed down.

So his season started three days after Christmas, six weeks after everyone else’s. And besides the language and fitness barriers, he also had to earn the respect of his new teammates. Pankey recalled that in his first practice sessions, Len grabbed the ball off the cylinder several times—a perfectly legal move under international rules, but a goaltending call in the American game.

“I had mixed feelings,” Pankey said. “I had heard stories, like he’s a first-round [NBA draft] pick, that he didn’t know how to put it on the floor.

“But he’s learned so much—about goaltending, the speed and physicality of the game. It’s really been hard for him, learning English at the same time.”

Len’s averages (6.2 points, 5.5 rebounds, 2.2 blocks per game) are modest, but figure to improve as his strength and comfort level do. And he hasn’t been called for basket interference in months.

Pankey said communicating on the fly is still an issue, particularly on defense. But there’s no doubting Len gives the Terps a rare blend of size and athleticism—and improves their defense.

“Me and Alex always try to protect the rim,” said 6–10 senior backup center Berend Weijs, an Amsterdam native who has served as a role model for Len. “That’s the European style—play volleyball with it until you can catch it. That’s what Alex does great. As long as he’s not in foul trouble, he’ll be all right.”

Staying on the court will be particularly important today against UNC’s 7-foot ACC player of the year, Tyler Zeller, and 6–10 John Henson. In the teams’ most recent meeting, Len was disqualified after just 16 minutes of action, and Zeller made 20 of 23 free-throw attempts.

To avoid a repeat, the Terps need some Len-sanity of their own. Who knows how long Len will stay in College Park before the lure of the pros or his homeland calls him away? That’s why Maryland is hoping to accelerate his steep learning curve.

“He’s 7 feet,” Pankey said. “You can’t go wrong with 7 feet.”

Steve DeShazo: 540/374-5443

sdeshazo@freelancestar.com

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