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.