COLLEGE PARK, Md. – Maryland’s junior center, Damonte Dodd, has started a dozen games this season, although he’s taken a backseat to freshman big man Diamond Stone for the last month, a span of a half-dozen outings. But Feb. 18 against Minnesota, the 6-foot-11 Centreville, Md., native will be thrust into the first five once again, although it’s hardly under the circumstances he, or his teammates, would’ve preferred.
After a much-publicized on-court feud between Stone and Wisconsin’s Vitto Brown Feb. 13 at Xfinity Center, the freshman earned himself a one-game suspension courtesy of head coach Mark Turgeon.
“We start with Damonte,” Turgeon said during his Feb. 17 press conference. “We’ve won a lot of games with Damonte over the last two years starting at center.”
Dodd’s backup, of course, will be Michal Cekovsky, who has seen his floor time dwindle during Big Ten play, although he did pour in 14 points during a non-conference matchup against Bowie State Feb. 9. And third in line will be freshman Ivan Bender, who has shown flashes of potential during nine outings this season, but has played a total of 14 minutes against league foes.
“When you’re blessed with a group of guys that are 6-11, 7-1 and 6-9, that’s definitely a luxury,” said senior guard Rasheed Sulaimon. “One of our mottos is, if one of our guys is out, it’s next man up. I believe in our talent, and I have confidence in all of our guys. We need them all to contribute to be where we want to be.”
It’s on Dodd, though, to lead the troops. In a campaign filled with inconsistencies for the big man, especially on the offensive end, Dodd’s averaging 3.3 points and about three boards in around 15 minutes a night.
“Same expectations. Rebound, block shots and get my teammates good looks,” Dodd said. “Diamond’s a scorer, but we still have a lot of other scorers. Of course, we’d like to have Diamond on the court, but Ivan is a great scorer and passer, and Ceko is going to do what Ceko does. We have the depth. But I just have to do my part, and hopefully we’ll do what we do and get this win [Feb. 18].”
The good news for Dodd is the last time he suited up against Minnesota, Jan. 3, 2015, in College Park, he scored nine first-half points; corralled a dozen rebounds; and came up with three blocks. It counts as perhaps Dodd’s preeminent performance against a Big Ten foe.
And it’s a game he clearly remembers.
“I did have a good game against Minnesota last year, and you do have that in the back of your mind,” Dodd said. “It was our first conference game at home, there was a lot of energy, and Dez [Wells] was our emotional leader. He just told to go out there and play freely and have fun. And I think my best friend from home was at that game too, so I wanted to play well in front of him (laughs).”
Turgeon, for his part, acknowledged that Dodd can indeed draw something from that last Gophers’ game. Hopefully, the coach said, it translates over to Feb. 18 at 8 p.m. in Minneapolis, Minn.
“Damonte’s had a good week of practice,” Turgeon said. “He’s just got to get back to being Damonte and do what he does well.”
As for Stone, well, no one on the team feels worse about the situation than the freshman. He issued a public apology for his actions during the 70-57 Badgers’ loss, and his teammates said he owned up afterwards.
“[Stone] told us it was a heat of the moment thing. Diamond’s a good kid. We were losing and he was trying to be aggressive, and he was just mad,” Dodd said. “We told him it’s a learning moment -- you’re a freshman, just don’t let it happen again. Just bounce back strong. He apologized, and it’s a learning experience thing for him.”
Said Sulaimon: “Sometimes emotions run high. [Stone will] be better for it. He’s behind us completely for this game.”
Stone won’t return to the lineup until Feb. 21 against Michigan, but the Terps are hoping point guard Melo Trimble reverts to form before then. Trimble scored a team-high 21 points and dished out five assists against Wisconsin, but the numbers are somewhat deceiving. He missed a number of open 3s he normally cans, didn’t get to the foul line once (Trimble’s forte), and putt up a goose egg in the rebound column. Moreover, Trimble was sluggish defensively, putting little pressure on his Wisconsin counterpart.
“Melo’s had like two bad games since he’s been here,” said Turgeon, who mentioned Trimble’s hamstring is not an issue. “I think he’s fine; I think he’s healthy. He’s really moved well this week. A couple days in practice this week he had his speed back on defense, which was good to see.
“Obviously when Melo doesn’t play well, it affects our team. There’s a reason we’ve won so many games since he’s been here. But I don’t want him to feel that kind of pressure, that he has to carry us. He trusts his teammates.”
Turgeon said he didn’t say a thing to Trimble following the Wisconsin game. The headman simply gave the sophomore a hug, and that was that.
“Melo bounced back the next day in practice,” Sulaimon said. “He was the first one in the gym getting shots up. He’s a firm believer in how hard we work translates to how well we play in games. One thing I admire about him is his confidence never wavers.”
Sulaimon said same goes for himself and his teammates. The Badgers’ defeat was by far the most demoralizing of the season for the 22-4 (10-3 Big Ten) Terps, who hadn’t dropped a game by double-digits all year.
“Everyone after a loss has their own grieving process we go through. We had a healthy team meeting; this team is very close,” Sulaimon said. “But everyone was good after that grieving process, and now we’re ready to move on. We’re focused and ready to get back out there.”
Turgeon made sure to note that every team goes through a rough patch during the course of a season. He acknowledged it was disappointing to lose at home after 27 straight Xfinity Center victories, but fully believes in his squad’s resolve moving forward.
“You hate losing; you hate losing the way we lost. We were never in it after the first 10 minutes. We didn’t compete in the way we’ve competed in every other game this year, so it’s kind of an eye-opener in that way,” said Turgeon, who mentioned the team didn’t watch any Wisconsin film since ‘it wouldn’t have helped us.’ “We lost ourselves in that game. We had nine turnovers and had seven, eight bad shots in the first half… To me that was an aberration. We’re still going to turn it over some, still going to take a few bad shots, but more often than not we’re going to give ourselves a chance to win. It doesn’t always mean we’re going to win, but we’ll give ourselves a chance.
“We’ve always responded and played pretty well after a loss,” the coach continued. “I expect the same [Feb. 18]. We’ve had a good week of practice and a little more time to think about this one. It’s getting late [in the season], it’s time for us to start picking it up a little bit and playing well down the stretch.”
It’s never easy on the road, but perhaps the struggling Minnesota Golden Gophers (6-19, 0-13 Big Ten) will provide an anecdote for the Terps’ recent woes. No, that 0-13 number in parentheses is not a misprint: The young Gophers, which start three freshmen and a sophomore, have yet to win a conference game. And they haven’t earned a “W” since Dec. 16, 2015, when they knocked off Chicago State.
“We just want to come in and play as hard as possible. I didn’t know [Minnesota] hadn’t won a conference game yet until [Feb. 15], and obviously we don’t want to be the first,” Dodd said. “We just have to come in, play hard, focus on defense and get into a rhythm offensively. It’s basketball. Anybody can beat anybody at any given time.”
Minnesota did come close to pulling games out on a few occasions, however, including a five-point loss at Michigan; a four-point loss against Purdue; a five-point overtime loss against Illinois; and, most recently, a four-point loss at Iowa Feb. 14.
Law of averages suggests the Gophers will eventually enter the win column before the season’s out, but the Terps are hoping this wounded dog doesn’t bite back Feb. 18 in Minneapolis.
“They’ve played well recently. They almost beat Iowa, Indiana. They’re playing well and a lot looser,” said Turgeon, who admitted his team’s rebounding this year has been ‘a little disappointing’ and wants the squad to concentrate on boxing out. “They’ve got a lot of young kids who are getting experience and starting to play better.”
Naturally, given Minnesota’s record, the Gophers sit ninth or lower in every Big Ten statistical category save turnover margin and assist-to-turnover ratio (fourth and seventh, respectively). Otherwise, they’re 12th in scoring offense (69.3 points per game); 12th in scoring defense (75 points per); 13th in field-goal percentage (41.2 percent); 12th in field-goal defense (45 percent); 12th in 3-point percentage (31 percent); 11th in the 3-point defense (36.3 percent); 10th in free-throw percentage (71 percent); 12th in rebounding margin (minus-4.4); ninth in blocks (3.8 per); and ninth in steals (5.2 per).
Sophomore point guard Nate Mason (6-1) serves as the squad’s breadwinner, leading the way in points (13.7 per) and assists (4.5 per). Mason only shoots 39 percent from the field and 29.7 percent from range, however, so he’s not particularly efficient. He is, however, an 80 percent free-throw shooter and is tied for the team lead in steals with 22.
Joining Mason in the backcourt is freshman Dupree McBrayer (6-4), a sometimes starter averaging 5.4 points and about two dimes a night. McBrayer has had his issues putting the ball in the bucket, converting just 30 percent from the field 19 percent from deep; and 63 percent from the line. He does pick up about one steal per outing, however.
Meanwhile, supplanted starter Carlos Morris (6-5) sees his share of floor time and is averaging 9.8 points and 3.7 rebounds. Morris shoots 35 percent from 3-point range, which is second best on the squad, but he’s turned the ball over a team-high 44 times.
Freshman Kevin Dorsey (6-4), a former Maryland target, rotates in quite frequently, the guard fifth-best on the team at 6.6 points per game on 36 percent shooting. But, like his teammates, he struggles from beyond the arc (17.5 percent).
In the frontcourt, senior wing Joey King (6-9) ranks second on the team at 11.3 points a night. King shoots a respectable 42.6 percent from the field, and a Gophers-best 40.7 percent from 3-point land and 89 percent from the stripe. He grabs about 3.5 rebounds per game too.
Freshman forward Jordan Murphy (6-6), another one-time Terps’ target, has had a fairly productive initial campaign. He’s averaging 11 points per on a team-high 51.6 percent shooting, while also recording a Minnesota-best 7.7 rebounds and a steal per night.
The final starter, sophomore big man Bakary Konate (6-11), has a 5 and 4.5 line. Konate doesn’t attempt many field goals, but he is converting at a 55-percent rate.
Forward Charles Buggs (6-9) has started 15 games this season and rotates in quite a bit. He added about a half-dozen points and 3.3 boards each game.
“We have to focus on us right now. We have to get our rhythm back. We’re not looking at the opponent; we’re looking at how we can get better as a collective unit,” Sulaimon said. “But we can’t overlook any game going forward. Every game is it’s own battle. Our focus is heightened now going into March, and we’re ready to get back into our rhythm again.
“We’re trying to focus on every weakness -- hard, and we’re trying to make [the weaknesses] into strengths. No one said this was going to be easy.”