Breaking down four big takeaways from Maryland's encouraging opening day performance, from Alex Len's emergence to shoddy execution and just how good this team could be.
1. This isn't last season's Alex Len. Our friend Olexiy's always had the physical tools to be a star at this level: he's a legitimate 7-1, athletic, surprisingly coordinated and more skilled than the vast majority of big men. But he was up and down last year, struggling with learning the language, acclimating himself to the rules and pace of the game, and lacking the strength to assert himself in the post. He was inconsistent, timid, and occasionally a passenger in game more than a driving force.
Not last night. There were at least six first-round picks on the floor at the Barclays Center, and Len was without question the best of them. He faced as good a defensive frontcourt as he's likely to see all season, and whereas in the past he may've wilted or been pushed around down low, he pushed back and even imposed himself. Much ado has been made about Len's nutrition and strength regimen in adding weight, and all that Boston Market over the offseason has clearly paid off. The contrast and improvement between last year and last night was striking, and it was present in every aspect of his game: his hands were softer, his defense more stout, his jumpers smoother, his post moves more emphatic, his rebounding more relentless.
But the biggest change may not have been physical as much as mental: for whatever reason, be it his newfound strength or his comfort level with the American game, Len played with intensity and passion we've never seen from him before. No longer reserved, he played with a chip on his shoulder and a swagger about him. He seemed genuinely self-assured that he not only belonged, but that he could dominate. That new mentality is a godsend for someone of Len's immense physical and technical skill, because he can dominate. And you could already see it when he scrapped for rebounds and jockeyed for position in the post, battles he almost always won.
Throw it all together, and Len was not only the best Terrapin on the floor but the best player on the floor, full stop. His final statline: 23 points on 10-18 from the floor and 3-4 from the stripe, 12 rebounds, and four blocks. That's not only an All-ACC type of performance (or arguably an All-American one), but a lotto one as well.
Len still has to prove that he can play like this with consistency. He often looked like breaking through last season only to regress the next day. But this was the most imposing frontcourt he's likely to face all season, maybe the best that he's ever faced, and he churned out a spectacular performance against it. If Len can only be even three-fourths the player he was last night, Maryland's season will take a significant turn to the good.
2. Offensively and defensively, this team's still a work in progress. But that's both good and bad. Everyone talked about how young Kentucky was and how much better they'll be in a few months, but the same likely applies to Maryland. This is a team with a host of new moving pieces, trying to integrate four freshmen, two transfers, and one player - Pe`Shon Howard - returning from injury and trying to get back up to speed. They are far from the finished product, and it showed.
Offensively, the Terrapins' attack was often stagnant, with a lot of standing around and nothing in the way of good looks at the net. Kentucky made it difficult with the quality of their interior defense, making it impossible for Nick Faust and Dez Wells to get baskets at the net, and it's obvious that Maryland lacks the shooters - at least at this early juncture of the season - to exploit the open looks they were given on the perimeter. It's extremely difficult to beat a team as good as Kentucky while shooting 33% from the field (and 15% from three!); Maryland's inability to find easy buckets or hit jumpers was without a doubt the biggest reason they left Brooklyn without a win. Perhaps you could chalk up the middling display to nerves, with so many young, hyped-up players (who mostly missed long). But their experienced options were little better, with Howard managing only 1-8 from the field and Faust and Wells - the supposed go-to options- combining to go 6-27. It goes without saying that those numbers need to improve, but I'll say it anyway: those numbers need to improve.
And on the other side of the court, Kentucky's dribble-drive motion offense gave the Terps' defense fits, especially in the first half. The Wildcats found it far too easy to get open looks when Maryland's defenders tried to switch or slip around screens - especially Kyle Wiltjer, who got wide open at least four times from deep, despite being far and away UK's best option. And while the likes of Nerlens Noel and Alex Poythress did little to trouble the defense individually, Archie Goodwin was dominant and was able to beat his man off the dribble at will, no matter who it was. Defense is Turgeon's calling card, the pride of his teams, so you expect them to improve as the year goes on. And if this team's going to have any chance of reaching the heights they hope to, they'll have to.
At the same time, though, the fact that Maryland is so far away is oddly encouraging. They're young, trying to integrate six players who didn't play here last season and a seventh who managed only a handful of games; they had to be expected to struggle with execution this early in the year. That they did struggle is not necessarily good news, but that they were competitive despite struggling? That's very encouraging indeed. Because there's every reason to expect execution to improve within the coming weeks and months, and if it does it'll be on top of what's already a very good base. Imagine last night's game with a few first-half jumpers falling and one or two fewer failed rotations on defense. If Mark Turgeon can get these guys firing all at the same time - something that's still yet to be determined, but that's totally possible - they'll be a buzzsaw.
3. Maryland's biggest question mark probably resides at point guard. The Terrapins haven't had a true answer at point ever since Greivis Vasquez left, and it's looking like they may not have one this year, either. Fans had hoped it would be Howard, a grizzly vet compared to the rest of the roster, but he struggled both physically and mentally in his first game back from long-term injury. It wasn't just that was he outmatched athletically; Howard's never been a great athlete, although he seems to have lost a step thanks to his multiple knee injuries and looked out of his depth against Kentucky's dynamism. What was more worrying was his decision-making, which resulted in multiple possessions with only Howard touching the ball, often settling for contested shots. He largely played within himself otherwise, but did little to positively impact the game - something that's worrisome, given that it was only position on the floor where Maryland should've had a clear, sizable advantage. Instead, he finished 1-8 with five assists and two turnovers, arguably being outplayed by his Kentucky counterpart, a walk-on from the hills of Kentucky.
Seth Allen, Howard's primary competition at the point, spent most of his time off the ball at two-guard, doing fairly well in his 25 minutes on the floor. He, like Howard, struggled to shoot, but he did knock down two critical three-pointers and, unlike Howard, showcased that he has that little extra bit of explosiveness that, especially at point guard, can transform a team from very good to great. Watch what he did to poor Archie Goodwin:
And he rounded that performance out with five assists to no turnovers. But most of that came off the ball, where he was at his best and can be a serious asset as a secondary ballhandler; being a full-time point is a different animal. Allen had his own struggles with getting the offense into sets, problems that will be present for any freshman running the show. But it was tough not to be impressed with where he stands at this early juncture of his career.
Allen will improve; so, too, will Howard, who's proven to be a capable player, if not a star, at this level. Howard hasn't played competitive basketball in quite some time, and the more he does the better he'll get. It's far from time to turn your back on him. But if both Howard and Allen keep playing like they did on Friday, Turgeon may well have a decision to make when it comes to the primary ballhandler.
4. This team has heart, and talent. And they should scare the ACC. It's becoming horribly cliché to talk about how much heart Maryland teams have, but it continues to be true. A team this young could've wilted under pressure and a significant halftime deficit, but instead they came out in the second half charged up and playing high-octane, energized basketball. That shocked Kentucky, which played hard by most standards but was downright nonchalant in comparison.
Nowhere was this more evident than in Maryland's rebounding performance, beating the Wildcats on the boards by 12 (and, ridiculously, 20 on the offensive glass). Rebounding is all about mindset - hustle, instincts, and technique - and it's where Maryland was easily the better side. Charles Mitchell is the perfect embodiment of this, scrapping for 10 boards in only 16 minutes of action, and he's a decent representation of this team's personality as a whole. They're about their business, and they're relentless. Not just on the glass, either.
But unlike last year, it's not a scrappy bunch of guys built around one legitimate threat. There's a lot of talent here, and it runs deep. Len looked the part of a lottery pick. Faust and Wells may've struggled last night, but they'd have a roster spot on any team in the country, including Kentucky. While young guys like Mitchell, Allen, and Jake Layman may not be ready for primetime quite yet, they're promising youngsters who have huge potential. This is a deep, athletic, and skilled team, one that will scare every opponent on their schedule. None will have a matchup for Len if he plays like he did yesterday; few will have one for the athleticism of Faust and Wells on the wing; plenty will struggle with the intensity and scrap they play with.
It's still undetermined how good this team will ultimately be. As the first half should've shown you, there's no guarantee of success this year; there's simply too much youth, too much potential inconsistency, too many question marks - especially when it comes to scoring points - to have any sort of certainty on that mark. If Len goes goes cold or the wings keep missing, there will be plenty of hurdles to success. But that doesn't change that this performance made the ACC's elite on Tobacco Road sit up and take notice, and perhaps much of the nation, too.
There's the potential here for Maryland to be a very good, legitimate top-20 team. Will they reach it? Who knows. But it's there, and it's there for the first time in years.