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Feb. 22, 2013
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. (theACC.com) - Life in the United States has been filled with challenges for Alex Len.
When he arrived on the Maryland campus from Ukraine in the summer of 2011, he spoke no English. Then an NCAA ruling meant he had to sit out the first 10 games of his freshman season. When he finally got on the court he was asked by coach Mark Turgeon to play a new position.
Fortunately, the 7-foot-1 sophomore is not someone who backs away from challenges. Deep into his sophomore season, Len has become a major contributor to a Maryland team that is digging in to polish its resume to get off the NCAA bubble and into the tournament field.
Len is from Antratsit, a city of some 78,000 in the eastern part of Ukraine, not far from the Russian border. He was a standout for his national team in the Under-18 European championships, which is where he caught Maryland's recruiting attention.
When he arrived in College Park, he faced a whole new world.
"The language was the biggest challenge," he said. "It was hard to go to a restaurant and order some food; it was challenging. Now I feel comfortable. I can have a conversation."
As a freshman Len had some trouble in practices and games because he didn't understand all the plays being called and also because he was learning to play with his back to the basket. But he showed flashes of impressive skills, averaging 6.0 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.1 blocked shots in just over 21 minutes per game.
Work in the weight room over the summer added 30 pounds and considerable strength to Len's frame. Now fluent in English and more comfortable in the post, he is playing with a new-found confidence. He's only playing about five minutes more per game than last year, but his averages are up sharply to 12.4 points and 8.0 rebounds and he's blocking shots at the same rate.
"In the summer I spent almost every day in the weight room with my conditioning coach," Len said. "We did a lot of things to get stronger and he wanted me to gain about 25 to 30 pounds, so that's what we did. I don't think I have lost anything. I feel the same and I can put maybe 10, 15 pounds more."
Growing up, Len's sport was not basketball but gymnastics, which he pursued for about four years, specializing in the parallel bars. But as he grew taller his coach told him he wasn't going to become a good gymnast. Still, it wasn't wasted time.
"I became more flexible, balanced and it helped with my coordination," he said.
Len said he didn't start playing competitive basketball until he was 13, and then he became a gym rat.
"I love basketball," he said. "I have a great passion for the game. I started playing pretty late but once I started playing I couldn't stop. Since I was 13 I have played almost every day on a basketball court. So it means a lot to me."
After arriving as something of a mystery man last season, Len feels more natural as he has settled into being a low post player.
"We've really worked hard on his low post game," Turgeon said. "That's the one thing that he really needed to work on; he's gotten better at it and more confident and stronger."
Len's length and added strength causes opponents problems when he catches the ball down low.
"He has a different body," said Steve Donahue of Boston College. "It's amazing. A lot of kids who gain weight still kind of play like they are not strong. He plays like he's a strong kid (and) really competes physically, which, at that size, is a handful."
One thing that helps Len is his ambition to get better. Getting even stronger, he believes, will help his game. He works on improving his skills, such as developing his post moves so that he has two on each block.
Something else he does is study tapes of NBA standouts, especially players who can slide between the center and power forward positions.
"I try to watch a lot of film of NBA stars like Tim Duncan, Pao Gasol and Kevin Garnett," he said. "It helps me a lot. I take notes. For example, what does Tim Duncan do the best that people can't stop? I try to copy his moves and adjust them to my game."
Life in this country has been good to Len.
"I enjoy it a lot," he said. "The college life is very cool - going to class, playing your favorite game and working with the best coaches. Playing in the Comcast Center is fun, too, in front of 20,000 people. It's real exciting."
He misses things about home, of course - his family (grandparents, mother, aunt), friends and some kinds of food that he can't get here.
But his family follows his games on TV and on the internet. Several members came to visit him a month ago when Maryland played, and beat, NC State. As for food, he balances what he can't get here by enjoying the many ways Americans fix chicken.
Since he won't turn 20 years old until June, there is a lot of room for Len's game to grow. Donahue said "he's got an incredible future ahead of him."
Turgeon is proud of Len's development and excited about his potential but said he stays on Len pretty hard about smoothing out his game. He can be dominant, as he was in a win over Duke with 19 points, nine rebounds, three blocks and an excellent defensive job that limited Mason Plumlee to four points and three rebounds.
And then he can struggle, which he did in the next game with four points and eight rebounds in a loss to Boston College. The Terps (18-8 overall, 6-7 in the ACC) have five ACC games left, including one at home against Clemson Saturday, and they need Len to be at his best down the stretch.
"(Against Duke) he was as good as he's been in a long time," Turgeon said. "So we need him to play that way over the next month or so for us to finish strong."
Len understands and accepts that as another in the series of challenges he's faced.
"We've just got to win games," he said. "The ACC Tournament is going to be huge for us. I think we can compete with every team; we've just got to get more consistent. That's what I'm working on right now."
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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