The college basketball season comes with all sorts of tests. For Maryland center Alex Len, one came in last Saturday's game against Wake Forest in the form of a forearm to his chest.
With Maryland leading early in the game, Len bumped with Wake Forest forward Devin Thomas as the two looked to establish position. Thomas, the brother of Maryland women's basketball star Alyssa Thomas, raised a forearm that grazed Len's torso.
Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said he was telling his 7-foot-1 center from the bench: "Don't back down, don't back down."
With his coach's prodding, the sophomore used the play as motivation. Moments later, he beat Thomas, a promising freshman, down the court on a fast break for a put-back dunk.
Len shot 4-for-4 in the first half of Maryland's 86-60 victory over the Demon Deacons.
It was just one half of basketball in a long season, but it was a telling stretch for Len, who is growing increasingly comfortable with the toughness required to succeed in the low post.
Like all centers, Len must learn to be physical without allowing himself to be baited into silly fouls.
With Len, Turgeon worries more about the former than the latter.
"I'll be honest with you, we were two weeks into practice [and] I was like, 'Holy smokes, this kid is not going to get it, he's not tough enough.' Then something came on," Turgeon said.
Maryland anticipated that Len would be tested against Wake Forest. He had just played his worst game of the season — four points and five rebounds in a loss at Florida State. Boris Bojanovsky, a 7-foot-3 freshman center for the Seminoles, scored a career-high eight points in just 12 minutes off the bench.
"Coming off the Florida State game, I'm sure their scouting report [on Len] was 'Put a forearm in his chest, he's not going to respond,' " Turgeon said as the Terps (16-6, 4-5 Atlantic Coast Conference) prepared for Thursday night's game at Virginia Tech (11-10, 2-6). "So, as his coach, I wanted to make sure he responded. Hopefully the next time he gets a forearm in his chest, he responds without me screaming and yelling. It's part of growing up for him."
There is more pressure this season on Len than in his freshman year. He is Maryland's leading scorer (12.7 points per game) and rebounder (8.2 per game) and is mentioned as a possible NBA lottery pick.
Opposing teams are working harder to stop Len, who has drawn more double-teams than last season.
"I mean, every game I play, I get the same thing," Len said. "Players try to do stuff like elbows, trash talk. I try not to listen but just play hard."
The better he gets, the more Len can anticipate that teams will use such tactics to try to derail his game.
"That's what experience is all about — to not be knocked off your game by words and not respond with over-effort," said Len Elmore, the ESPN broadcaster and former Maryland and NBA center and forward.
Elmore said he was targeted before developing "the reputation as a guy from New York that didn't take any stuff."
It has helped Len to have two new, bulky frontcourt players to practice with this season — freshmen Charles Mitchell and Shaquille Cleare.
Len is "definitely competitive, and part of it is Shaq beating him up every day," Maryland guard Seth Allen said. "Shaq's a big guy, so having Shaq in practice really makes it that [much] more competitive."
On the court, Len can be hard to read. His expression rarely changes.
Last season, the Ukraine-born player struggled to adjust to the physical nature of the American game and to understand play calls because of his limited English. This season, his coaches and teammates insist there is a beast inside Len waiting to be released.
"He's got an edge to him, he really does," Turgeon said. "I think when he was back in his home country, it came out a little bit more. I think it's just taken awhile."
Notes: Maryland will be trying for its first ACC road victory against Virginia Tech. The Terps defeated the Hokies, 94-71, in College Park on Jan. 5.
"If we want to be a part of the NCAA tournament, we've got to win some road games," Turgeon said.
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