COLLEGE PARK, Md. – Slowly but surely, Maryland big man Michal Cekovsky is developing into a consistent presence underneath for the Terps. He may not be a starter yet, but it’s probably only a matter of time before head coach Mark Turgeon inserts the junior into his first five and allows the 6-foo-9 Slovakian to garner the lion’s share of minutes.
“Ceko’s much more confident. He’s gotten bigger, more athletic and he feels like he’s paid his dues. I think he’s done some amazing things… To do what he’s done in such a short time it’s great,” Turgeon said. “He’s still getting there with his rebounding and his defense, and he’s working on that in practice, but he’s really playing well.”
Turgeon has elected not to throw Cekovsky right into the fire after a foot injury knocked the power forward out of the Terps’ first four games this year. But coming off the bench Nov. 29 against Pitt, Cekovsky saw his most action yet, playing exactly half the game while converting all four of his field-goal attempts. He was the Terps’ lone effective interior presence in the loss to the Panthers.
“It’s a process, but I’m getting better every day. I’m practicing well, getting used to things and just getting better. My role is different than last year, but I’m gaining confidence,” Cekovsky said. “This is my third year, and I just try to play every game as well as a I can.”
With starting big Damonte Dodd limited offensively, Cekovsky has proven he can maneuver inside and score around the rim. He’s also held his own on the defensive end, averaging about five boards and a block per night – similar numbers to Dodd, who is known for his “D.”
“I just try to help the team any way I can,” Cekovsky said. “Clog the middle, rebound, score. Anything to help the team. I’m getting there; I’m getting better.”
Cekovsky isn’t the only one growing more comfortable with his role. Starting guards Melo Trimble and Anthony Cowan continue to develop chemistry and learn how to play with one another in the backcourt. The pair have had to adjust significantly since both are used to dominating the ball and are now asked to share the load running the Terps’ offense.
“It’s hard for both of them,” Turgeon said. “Melo has had the ball in his hand for two years and all through high school, so it’s hard for Melo being off the ball. And Anthony had the ball all during high school too. They’re still getting used to each other and it’s been an adjustment, but they’re getting better.
“I think [Cowan] is doing a better job of running the team. Earlier, I think he was looking for his shot instead, but now he’s running the team. We still need Anthony to score and get to the rim. He’s gotten better not getting too deep into the lane, he’s turning the ball over less, making better decisions, running a little better, getting everyone in position, and getting a lot of stops. Defensively he’s getting better [too], and his leadership is getting better. There’s a lot of his plate, but he’s handled it. He’s getting there.”
Trimble has seen his scoring numbers increase to near 21 points per game with Cowan setting him up, although the junior point guard’s assist average is down to 3.4 per. Cowan, meanwhile, is scoring 10 a night and dropping about five dimes.
The former St. John’s (Washington, D.C.) star said playing in the rough-and-tumble WCAC helped him tremendously in his adjustment to college ball.
“It definitely prepared me,” Cowan said. “In the WCAC, you can’t take a night off, and that’s how it is here. You can’t take a night off or you’re going to get beat.”
He found that out Nov. 29 at the Xfinity Center.
During Maryland’s (7-1) first loss to Pitt, the Terps’ shooters fell victim to the Panthers’ 3-2 zone. UMD converted just 10 of 36 3-point attempts and shot a season-low 34 percent from the field. Trimble finished 2-of-8 from distance, Kevin Huerter was 2-of-9 and Cowan was 1-of-4.
“We talk with our team about getting good shots. We probably shot a little more than we needed to [against Pitt], because we were behind and hoping those 3s counted for six points (laughs),” Turgeon said. “But the key is we’re getting good shots, and that’s what matters. But we have to offensive rebound. If we’re going to miss 58 percent of our shots, then we’ve got to rebound and 45-50 percent of those.”
The Terps don’t figure to see a zone defense Dec. 3 at 9 p.m., though. No. 25 Oklahoma State (7-1) is a man-to-man, in-your-face squad that can press end to end. The Cowboys, who aren’t very long, are second nationally in steals (12.4 per game) and third nationally in turnovers forced (20.71), OSU averaging 25.6 points off said miscues. All five of Oklahoma State’s main contributors record more than one steal a night.
Opposing teams also have the ball for just 14 seconds per possession against OSU, which ranks first in the country. Naturally, that defensive pressure aids the offense as the Cowboys typically get almost 11 more shots per game than their opponents, while they’re scoring 99 points a night, which is second nationally.
“They’re a heck of a team,” Turgeon said. “They have great guards, play as hard as any team in the country, they’ll pressure you like no one will pressure us all year, and they’re a relentless rebounding team. The keys are to take care of the basketball – we have to take care of it better than we have – and we have to deal with their pressure.”
Freshman point Jawun Evans (6-0, 175) leads the way at 24.7 points per game on 49 percent shooting. He also dishes out a team-high five assists a night and swipes an eye-popping three-plus steals per, making Evans the country’s only player who ranks in the top five in the country in points and steals.
Evans posted 35 points against UConn and 30 more against North Carolina, giving him three 30-point efforts this season.
Cowan, the freshman, will have the unenviable task of guarding Evans. During the Pitt affair, Cowan had to man Jamel Artis, a lengthy guard who ended up with 22 points.
“Artis was a lot bigger guard [than Evans], so I have to use my quickness against him. I have to use my quickness and I can’t lose him,” Cowan said. “I’ve been watching film, and I have to be quick, cut him off and get to the rim.”
Another freshman, wing Jeff Carroll (6-6, 205) averages 16 points per game on 61.2 percent shooting. He also pulls down a team-best 7.6 rebounds a game.
A third freshman, wing Lindy Waters (6-6, 200), scores about eight points a night and is second on the team with 11 steals.
The team’s lone senior starter, Phil Fore (5-11, 185), teams with Evans in the backcourt. He averages almost 15 points per game on 42 percent shooting and is the team’s most potent deep threat (37 percent beyond the arc).
Sophomore forward Leyton Hammonds (6-7, 205) technically starts, although he only gets about 15 minutes a night, averaging about six points and five rebounds.
Same goes for sophomore big man Mitchell Solomon (6-9, 240), who starts but only sees around 13 minutes of floor time. Solomon puts up around three points and boards per game.
“[Oklahoma State] is a very fast team, they put a lot of pressure on you and we have to be ready for that,” Trimble said. “We have to execute, take care of the ball and take good shots… We have to play better than we did [against Pitt].”