Big Ten play begins for Maryland Dec. 27 at the Xfinity Center, and the Terps are still battling season-long injury woes. Starting center Damonte Dodd, the team’s most effective paint defender, has been hobbled for more than three weeks with an MCL sprain. And guard Dion Wiley, who missed UMD’s last game against Charlotte with a wrist sprain, is just getting back into the swing of things.
Those are just the latest rash of issues.
Previously, the Terps went extended periods without big man Michal Cekovsky, forward Ivan Bender, and, of course, Wiley, who had been dealing with prior ailments stemming from last year.
“It has been tough. It’s been tough to really, at this point, to reach our full potential with injuries and the nature of them,” head coach Mark Turgeon said Dec. 26. “Ceko missed 10 weeks, then Damonte’s injury and Dion’s injury, and on and on. We haven’t been able to practice the way I’d like to.”
In all likelihood, Wiley will be back in action Dec. 27 against Illinois, but Dodd’s injury continues to linger. When he was first diagnosed, Turgeon estimated the senior would be back by the time the Big Ten schedule rolled around, if not sooner. But the headman admitted that’s probably not going to happen now.
“I don’t know yet. It’s a knee injury. Everything I’m hearing from the doctors is [Dodd] has to feel comfortable and stable with it,” Turgeon said. “Most likely, because of him being out three weeks already, we’re going to have to ease him back in. We’re doing everything we can to keep him in shape with lifting and elliptical and things like that, but it’s not basketball shape.”
Besides health concerns, Turgeon addressed another problem his squad needs to fix pronto. The Terps have developed a habit, regardless of the competition, of starting games, well, like turtles. They’re turned on the jets during the second half of most affairs, but have yet to really play a complete 40 minutes of basketball.
“We’ve done some amazing things late in games when our backs are against the wall. We’ve defended well enough and executed at a high level [down the stretch]," said Turgeon, who lauded his three starting freshmen, Justin Jackson, Anthony Cowan and Kevin Huerter, for their consistent play. “Our guard play has been terrific, to be honest with you, and our defense has kept us in games… But we’re nowhere near where I think we could be if we had stayed healthy. … We haven’t improved at the rate I’d like us to.”
Maryland may not need to improve ten-fold overnight, however. The Terps’ first Big Ten opponent, Illinois, has struggled at times this year, and their second conference foe, Nebraska, hasn’t been especially potent either.
That’s not to say the Illini aren’t capable of knocking off UMD at home. Illinois (10-3), which has a loss against Winthrop, boasts three or four starters -- and a host of regular bench contributors -- 6-feet-6 or longer. That includes a pair of 6-10-plus bigs in Maverick Morgan and Mike Thorne.
It’s no surprise the Illini are fairly active on the glass, out-rebounding their foes by about five-per game, while their length has caused problems for opposing shooters (41.5 percent from the field).
“It’s a tough matchup because of their size,” said Turgeon, who admitted it’s a ‘good possibility’ forwards LG Gill and Ivan Bender see more minutes Dec. 27 to deal with Illinois’ length. “This is the biggest, most physical team we’ve played this year. They can create problems for us. This team is much bigger and stronger than Pittsburgh.”
The Illini’s most dominant player, though, is wing Malcolm Hill, a 6-6 jack-of-all-trades who is averaging 18.4 points per game and 6.3 rebounds per. Hill can convert from the field (43 percent), 3-point range (42 percent) and the line (78 percent), while he’s known as a solid defender too.
“He’s pretty darn good. We really don’t have a wing his size and strength. [Kevin] Huerter and [Jared] Nickens have some length, but not the bulk to guard him,” said Turgeon. “He can post up, has a nice mid-range game, can play one-on-one, can dip his shoulder. He’s a tough matchup.”
Regardless of how the Terps react, Turgeon continued to reiterate his mantra: The Key is getting healthy. For Maryland to make a run in the Big Ten, they’re going to need their full complement of players, if for no other reason than to add depth in practice.