EVANSTON, Ill. – Maryland sophomore Alex Len had just played a lethargic first half that encapsulated the sloppy play his Terrapins and Northwestern exhibited on Tuesday night, and the center entered the tunnel and into the locker room grumbling something to himself.
With his size, his clear mismatch against the Northwestern big men, Len knew exactly what coach Mark Turgeon would preach in the locker room to his team: Go inside to Len and find any way to get the ball down to this 7-foot-1 frame for which Northwestern – and so many around the NCAA – has absolutely no answer.
Northwestern trailed by just two at halftime, 28-26, and tied up the game 14 seconds into the second half, but then came a sensational run out of Len that put the Wildcats away. In a flurry spanning less than two minutes, Len scored three straight baskets in successive Maryland possessions, grabbed two rebounds and blocked a shot. Rescuing Maryland from a sluggish first half, Len gracefully slammed the door on the Wildcats’ night. His run led to just a seven-point advantage for Maryland, but this wave was seemingly an avalanche, coming one after another.
Around Maryland basketball, Len is always the first guy up cheering on the bench. He’s vocal with his teammates, gathering them a few times each half for quick huddles. Most of all, his passion permeates throughout arenas, a feverish pitch that resonates with his team as well.
After making an and-one layup during that early second-half burst, Len let out a yell toward the rafters at Welsh-Ryan Arena and pumped his chest.
“He was barking at the ceiling, did you see that?” Turgeon later said, laughing. Yes, this was a bark taken right out of the Kevin Garnett book – rage applied straight from within in a means to ignite his team. So, it should come as no surprise that Len is on a quest to try to emulate the NBA star he idolized growing up in Ukraine.
“K.G., Kevin Garnett, is my favorite player. I love that passion and that energy,” Len told RealGM after the game in a hallway outside the visitors’ locker room.
Len remains a fan of Garnett, along with admiring the games of Pau and Marc Gasol, and it has been clear so far this season that this 19-year-old will eventually battle down low with those great big men one day soon.
Len dropped 23 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks against Kentucky in the opener and had his second double-double of the season Tuesday, finishing with 13 points – nine of which in the second half – and 13 rebounds. The only aspect that held him back vs. Northwestern, however, was his fluctuating energy level, with Turgeon giving him breathers in the second half when Len told the assistant coaches he was feeling tired.
“Coach wanted us to execute better and play more inside-out,” Len said. “And the point guards were feeding [me], so that helped a lot.”
For now, Len admits he has to keep working on improving his post-up game and mid-range shot. He’ll be afforded the opportunity to do so due in part to Dezmine Wells’ emergence early this season. Wells, also in his second college season, had 10 of his 23 points in the first half, when Len admittedly lacked spark, and the guard made nine of 11 shots. And Len needs to continue getting stronger physically and more alert defensively, where he got lost in transition a few times in the first half.
Finding deficiencies in Len’s game, however, is just nitpicking at this point. He promises to evolve as the year wears on, and he has tools that simply don’t come natural for seven-footers these days: A soft 14-to-18-foot touch, being a willing post player, running the floor smoothly and, mostly, there is no teaching this size and length.
Yet none of that even covered the part Len’s coach loves most: His defensive presence, a facet that allows Maryland to change schemes on the fly.
“When you’ve got a guy like Alex, it’s intimidating to the other team,” Turgeon said. “As the game wore on, we just guarded their [center] less and less, and just had Alex zone up and block shots.
“Alex just does what he does: He was aggressive and he blocks shots and he gets some big-time rebounds out there.”