Alex Len’s Coming Out Party Nearly Spoils Kentucky’s Title Defense DebutPosted by EJacoby on November 9th, 2012
Evan Jacoby is a correspondent for RTC and a regular contributor. He filed this report from the Kentucky-Maryland game tonight in Brooklyn. You can find him @EJacobyRTC on Twitter.
We assumed it was nearly impossible for Kentucky to repeat the kind of immediate, dominant success it had last season with a brand new crop of young players this year. For the first half of their season-opening game against Maryland on Friday night, though, the Wildcats came out on fire and efficient on both ends en route to opening a 15-point lead just minutes into the second half in the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. But it didn’t take long for the inconsistency, poor decision-making, and defensive mistakes that are typical of freshmen players to crop up for John Calipari’s team, which opened the door for Maryland to make a run in front of a very pro-Terrapin crowd. Led by emerging sophomore center Alex Len, the Terps went on a 15-0 second half run and eventually took the lead before seesawing to a tough, 72-69 loss. Len was the catalyst on both ends for Maryland’s near-upset, as the sophomore seven-footer finished with 23 points, 12 rebounds, and four blocks — all game-highs. He shot 10-18 from the field and committed zero turnovers. Despite failing to capitalize with a monster non-conference victory, Maryland and its fans must feel confident about this season’s outlook on the heels of Len’s dominant opening performance.
The big sophomore showed flashes of greatness last season for Maryland, but he did not put together any dominant performances that could propel Mark Turgeon’s team to big wins. The center from the Ukraine recorded six total games in double-figure scoring last year, and none after February 4. He averaged 4.1 points per game in his final 10 games and amassed just one double-double all season. Tonight was a completely different story, as Len looked much more polished in the paint with offensive moves, finishes at the rim, rebounding prowess, and strong defensive positioning. Len turned national consensus #1 recruit Nerlens Noel of Kentucky into an afterthought, dominating the freshman in the paint as well as beating him down the floor in transition on multiple occasions. Noel had just four points on 2-6 shooting to match his nine rebounds and three blocks. If not for the unlikely late-game heroics of former Kentucky walk-on Jarrod Polson, who scored 10 points tonight after recording a total of seven previous points in his career, the Terps could have left Barclays Center with a defining victory.
Maryland likely feels that it should have won this game, and its inability to notch the statement non-conference victory could end up haunting the team in March when teams’ resumes are put under an intense microscope. But if Len and his teammates play as tough and as well as they did on Friday night, perhaps the Terrapins won’t be sweating out this season on the NCAA Tournament bubble. Joining Len with impressive frontcourt performances were senior James Padgett and freshman Charles Mitchell. The duo combined for 14 points and 15 rebounds, an unlikely total against a massive Kentucky front line. While Turgeon’s team struggled mightily on the perimeter, there’s plenty of talent to go around with the likes of scoring guard Nick Faust, recently eligible transfer wing Dez Wells, and point guards Pe’Shon Howard and Seth Allen. If those four shot just slightly better than the awful 9-for-43 they combined for on Friday night, the Terrapins may have walked away with a win.
On the other side of this game, Kentucky fans shouldn’t worry too much despite a near-loss. As long as the Big Blue Nation isn’t expecting a repeat of last season’s coast-to-coast dominance, this game couldn’t have come as much of a surprise. Playing with a brand new roster of young players in front of a sellout crowd in a pro-Maryland arena, the Wildcats managed to come away victorious and flashed moments of absolute brilliance despite all the second half turmoil that nearly resulted in a loss. Noel struggled mightily against the more polished center Len, transfer point guard Ryan Harrow was off all night while battling the flu, and freshman forward Alex Poythress never found his rhythm after picking up two quick fouls to open the game. But freshman Archie Goodwin still showed off his elite dribble-drive skills (16 points including 9-11 free throws), sophomore Kyle Wiltjer played like a seasoned vet (19 points, six rebounds, three blocks), Willie Cauley-Stein came up huge near the rim on both ends, and the former walk-on Polson played out of his mind and saved the game in crunch time.
There’s more than enough talent on the Kentucky roster for it to compete once again for a national title. When things click like they did in building a 15-point first half lead, the Wildcats can show that they are as talented as any team in the nation. Tonight was simply Alex Len’s night, and the sophomore center’s coming out party provides great hope for a Maryland program very much in need of a spark, and a wake-up call to the defending national champions as they head into a monster game with Duke on Tuesday night.