COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- The whistle blew in Xfinity Center earlier this month and 2016-17 basketball practices were underway. The Terrapins, coming off back-to-back 27-win campaigns, are on an upward arc heading into their sixth year under coach Mark Turgeon, but there was good news and bad news as the balls starting bouncing.
The good news was that Dion Wiley, playing the best basketball of his career last preseason before suffering an MCL injury that cost him the season and cost the Terrapins’ much-needed depth in the backcourt, is back. Better yet, the redshirt sophomore is not showing ill affects from the injury after surgery and the long rehabilitation.
“Dion has practiced every minute of every practice without a knee brace,” said Turgeon when asked about the 6-4 guard’s status. “No swelling, no pain, and we’ve worked him hard. Dion is not where he was before the injury, but it’s all headed in that direction.”
Wiley averaged 4.1 points per game as a freshman in 2014-15, and should compete for the shooting guard spot alongside Melo Trimble in what is suddenly a very deep Maryland backcourt. “I’m going to use (that depth),” said Turgeon. “It will change us. We were big last year and we’ll be a bit of a smaller team.”
Right now the Terrapins are even smaller than anticipated in early workouts, and that’s the bad news. Seven-foot-one junior Michal Cekovsky wasn’t able to go as practices opened because of a hamstring injury.
“Ceko has been hurt,” said the coach. “I don’t know a timetable. I’m hoping within the next two weeks or a week but you just don’t know with big kids and hamstrings.”
Cekovsky, who has the skills to be a special player like Alex Len was on some of Turgeon’s earlier Terp teams, has time to get better and add to a growing pedigree of progress. With Diamond Stone off to the NBA, Ceko should be headed for a breakout season.
“He has the talent,” said Turgeon, who is noted for developing bona fide basketball big men. “He has been hurt, but he had a great summer. He had a great spring and the fall just hasn’t gone the way he wanted it to go. Still looks like a million bucks. He’s working hard. We’ll get him back. I think Ceko is a much more confident player than he was a year ago at this time. And he knows it’s his time. He has the right attitude and approach to it.”
As for the six scholarship newcomers added to the roster this offseason, they’ve got a good aptitude and approach to their opportunity to help right away, “I think all the new guys are good basketball players,” offered Turgeon. “The guys that are most ready from watching practice the first few days would be Anthony Cowan, Kevin Huerter, Justin Jackson – they’re all practicing very well, at a high level – and then LG Gill, he’s a fifth year so he’s been through it. He’s probably further along than all of them. Those four guys of the newcomers stick out to me, but the other newcomers are doing well also and coming along.”
Those freshmen – the 6-0 Cowan, the 6-7 Huerter and the 6-7 Jackson – are all perimeter players that have upped the ante at guard and small forward. Jackson, a four-star prospect out of East York, Ontario, could push for a starting job with his array of abilities.
Jackson was rated the No. 26 recruit in the United States as a junior at Findlay Prep in Las Vegas, but his status dropped – perhaps in a metric conversion – when he went back home to Canada as a senior. Turgeon loves his versatile game as a scorer, passer and his ability to defend at multiple positions.
“To me, Justin Jackson is a guard,” said Turgeon. “We recruited him as a guard, but he’s a 6-7 guard. We can play like we did with Jake Layman, that type of lineup like we did two years ago. We weren’t able to do it as much last year after Dion got hurt. I think you’ll see that lineup with Justin there quite a bit.”
And 6-7 junior swingman Jared Nickens, who averaged 5.4 points and 1.9 rebounds in 36 games last year, could also have a say in matters. Huerter, another four-star prospect out of Clifton Park, N.Y., is definitely a guard, maybe even a point guard, though that position is pretty well covered in College Park these days.
Huerter and Turgeon had extra time together, both part of the gold medal-winning USA U18 Team at the FIBA America championships this summer. His three-point shooting was likely the difference in a key pool-play victory over host Chile. Huerter was only 6-4 when the Terrapins began recruiting him and now he has that size to go with a polished skill-set.
“Kevin’s a good player, and he has really improved since we’ve gotten back,” said Turgeon. “He has improved a lot since this summer. He has gotten stronger.”
Huerter has put on weight and is playing with confidence. Cowan, the four-star dynamo out of Bowie and St. John’s College High, was a Top 50 player nationally and he could have a huge role in relief of Melo, that is when he’s not playing alongside. Maryland’s junior leader slumped a bit statistically last year as he played a team-high 32.8 minutes per game, charged with most of the ballhandling and nearly all of the igniting of Maryland’s offense.
It’s a fine line for the Terrapins who need Trimble, but also need to keep him fresh.
“We need the ball in Melo’s hands,” explained Turgeon. “But if we can take some pressure off him…Anthony will allow us to do that. Jaylen Brantley will allow us to do that. Dion Wiley will allow us to do that, too. Dion is really good with the ball, so (we) want to just take pressure off Melo.”
Turgeon saw Trimble’s numbers dip to 41 percent shooting from the field and 31.5 percent from 3-point range last year, as defenses geared to stop him, played him physically and Trimble battled nagging injuries that took away some of his explosiveness.
“You know there’s been a lot of pressure on Melo,” he continued. “He’s going to score for us, he’s going to be Melo and do what he does. If we can have him score in different ways besides getting to the foul line and scoring off ball screens…I think this team will be able to do that.”
Meanwhile, among the big men, senior Damonte Dodd looks ready for his best season, as does little-used sophomore Ivan Bender. “Damonte is doing terrific, he’s in great shape for him, for this time of year,” said the coach. “Defensively, he’s doing some great things. He’s rebounding and he has become a much better low-post scorer. He has really worked on that this summer and we need him there. He was always good off penetration. He was always good on second chance points, but now he’s a guy we can throw the ball to. “
Dodd has improved his technique and footwork, but there’s more to it. “He realizes he’s 6-11, and long, and he has gotten stronger so he can back guys down,” said Turgeon. “We’re going to surround him with great shooters so it’s a one-on-one matchup down there for him.”
Bender, meanwhile, has come back in better shape and his surgically-repaired knee is healthy. “He has become more athletic because he’s not thinking about his knee,” said Turgeon. “He has always been a smart player, but now that he’s more in shape and more confident, it shows even more.”
Bender’s emergence was important in practices with Cekovsky out. Gill can help, too, but he’s a stretch-four that often drifts to the perimeter. Behind them and Dodd, the Terrapin are young, another challenge in practices.
“It’s hard, you have to balance everything up in practice where you don’t have too many newcomers in a drill,” said Turgeon. “You have a couple of veterans with them. I have to balance it a little better going forward. It’s tough. Lot of new guys, lot of young guys but like I said they’re giving me everything they’ve got and they’re very coachable so we’ll get there eventually.”
Likely by the Nov. 11 home opener against American. The young Terrapins play four of their first five games at Xfinity, with the other just in downtown D.C., Nov. 15 at Georgetown in the Verizon Center.