COLLEGE PARK, Md. – After playing eight of their last 12 games away from Xfinity Center, the Terps finish out the regular season with three of their final four bouts in College Park. But No. 24 Maryland (22-5, 10-4 Big Ten) will do so without their most effective offensive post presence. Injury-riddled junior Michal Cekovsky was dealt a knockout punch during UMD’s loss to Wisconsin Feb. 19, the 7-footer out for the year with a broken ankle.
“First of all, I feel bad for Ceko. The kid has been hurt all year. He’s played through a lot,” head coach Mark Turgeon said. “We’ve got to move on without him, but we’ve played a lot of games and won a lot of games without him too. Did Ceko give us something on our team no one else did? Absolutely. And we’re going to miss that… So it’s disappointing, but we have a lot of confidence in our guys. LG [Gill] has played some center for us, Ivan [Bender] has obviously played some center for us. … We’ve played a lot without Ceko this year.
“Our guys get it. We’ve had guys sick, injured – different things that never made the media. It is what it is. Our guys know they have to step up.”
Yes, they do.
The team leader, junior Melo Trimble, basically spoke for his mates in regards to the Cekovsky situation.
“We’re definitely going to miss him. He’s a great rebounder, he can defend, finish around the rim and he’s 7-feet. But it’s a next-man-up mentality,” he said.
The aforementioned Gill and Bender have played well in spurts off the bench this year. The 6-9 Bender hasn’t contributed much the last two nights, but he had a two-game stretch earlier in February where he scored six points in back-to-back bouts, while doing his part on the glass as well. He’s averaging four points and three rebounds in 13.5 minutes of action for the season.
The graduate transfer Gill (3.4 points, 2.1 rebounds in 13 minutes per), meanwhile, has performed his best when playing his natural “4” spot, which he’s been allowed to do with the Terps having their full complement of big men. But with Cekovsky out, Gill will be forced back into a traditional paint role.
“Ceko, it’s unfortunate for us that he’s down, but for us collectively as a team we have to dial in. For me, since I have played the ‘5’ in the past, I’d say it’s not that big of an adjustment. If I hadn’t played the ‘5’ in the past it would be a different situation,” said Gill, who mentioned the squad didn’t find out until the night of Feb. 20 Cekovsky would be sidelined for the rest of the season. “One of the main reasons I came [to Maryland] was because I wanted a chance to help a team win and get to the [NCAA tournament]… I’m just looking forward to continue playing every game like it’s my last.”
In addition to Gill and Bender, starting forward Damonte Dodd will have to keep expanding his role. The defensive-minded Dodd busted out offensively in Maryland’s Feb. 15 win at Northwestern with 12 points, but he was rendered bucket-less against Wisconsin.
One of the main reasons for that, of course, was early foul trouble, which limited Dodd to 14 minutes. It’s been an issue all season for the senior from Centreville, Md.
“We’ve been talking about Damonte not fouling every game, even with Ceko. We’ll continue to talk about that,” Turgeon said. “He has to play a little smarter defensively, but he has to be a presence too. We have confidence in Ivan and LG [at center], but for us to be great down the stretch Damonte can’t play 13 minutes or 15 minutes. He’s got to play 25 minutes for us to be great.”
The Terps need to have balanced production in order to be great too. The last couple games, as it was earlier during the campaign, Maryland has relied on Trimble to carry the load offensively. In effect, he's been forced to do that as freshmen starters Justin Jackson, Anthony Cowan and Kevin Huerter have all struggled to score of late.
Cowan seemed to be coming on in victories over Ohio State and Northwestern Feb. 11 and Feb. 15, but he fell back into a slump with a 1-for-7 outing against Wisconsin Feb. 19. Jackson hasn’t had a standout offensive effort since catching fire in late January. And Huerter’s assertiveness has waned the last two games after a long, consistent stretch of reliable shooting from deep.
Trimble, though, said the freshmen’s confidence remains and they’ll catch fire soon enough. Likewise, Turgeon isn’t worried and said balance should return in short order.
“I thought we were a little more balanced against Northwestern. We ran plays for everybody, fed off each other and shot a high percentage. … We’re a team. We’ve been a team all year. We had 10 assists on 11 baskets in the first half against Wisconsin. Our guys get it,” Turgeon said.
The good news is Trimble has proven he can still take over games -- and win them -- when he has to. He went off for a career-high 32 against Northwestern and followed up with a 27-point effort against Wisconsin, almost leading the Terps all the way back in the latter affair.
“When Melo is hot we trust him… and we want him to take over. When he’s scoring it helps other players get their shots,” Gill said.
At this time last year, Trimble showed signs of wearing down thanks to the 34-plus minutes he played every night. Apparently that’s not the case in 2016-17, even though he sees the same amount of action.
“I feel great compared to the last two years,” Trimble said. “My back, my hamstring, I feel great. I’m taking care of myself, doing extra treatment with Kyle [Tarp], and sitting on the bench more [in practice].”
Said Turgeon: “He does seem fresher. He’s smarter on how he approaches things. You could never get him our of practice his first, second years. Now he’ll take a break during practice…And he’s really playing his best basketball right now.”
Well, in all aspects save maybe rebounding.
Trimble was noticeably pulled late during the Wisconsin loss, even though he was the only Terp who could score against the Badgers’ rugged defense. Turgeon, in a not-so-subtle manner, hinted Trimble’s effort on the glass may have had something to do with him riding pine.
“No second guessing myself,” Turgeon said. “We weren’t rebounding. The guys at the end of our bench [at the end of the game] weren’t rebounding, and [Trimble] was one of them. Is that clear enough?”
The Terps and Trimble will attempt to remedy their rebounding woes from the confines of the Xfinity Center, where they’ll host a Minnesota squad they knocked off in Minneapolis, Minn., three weeks ago. Justin Jackson anchored the attack with 28 points and 10 rebounds, Kevin Huerter finished with 19 points, and Melo Trimble had 13. The Terps shot 51 percent from the floor, 61 percent from 3 and had just seven turnovers all night.
At the time, though, the Gophers were struggling mightily, and their 85-78 loss to Maryland represented their fifth straight Big Ten defeat. But since then Minnesota has rattled off five straight victories, raising its record to 20-7 and 8-6 in the league, the latter good enough for fifth place in the Big Ten. Most recently, the Gophers downed Michigan, 83-78.
Minnesota’s surge has mainly been buoyed by its defense, which now ranks among the conference’s most prolific. The Gophers hold foes to 68.6 points per (seventh) on 39.7 percent shooting (second) and 30 percent from range (first). Thanks in part to big man Ryan Lynch, Minnesota is also the conference’s top shot-blocking squad, while the Gophers are in the upper-tier in steals and turnover margin as well. They’re not the best glass cleaners around, but Minnesota is still middle of the pack in defensive rebounding.
Offensively, the Gophers are now averaging more points per game (75.4) than Maryland (74.9). True, Minnesota hasn’t been especially efficient, connecting at a 43 percent rate from the field (11th); 35 percent from deep (eighth); and 70 percent from the line (seventh). But the Gophers have been moving the ball well and limiting turnovers (fourth in assist-to-turnover ratio), while they’re one of the best offensive rebounding squads in the Big Ten. Indeed, second-chance opportunities are one of the main reasons Minnesota’s won its last five games.
“Definitely we have to rebound. They’re big so we have to keep them off the glass,” Trimble said. “They’re a complete team – they can score, rebound and defend. We have to play our basketball.”
In the backcourt, point guard Nate Mason leads the way at 15 points per game, although only at 37 percent form the field and 39 percent from 3. He’s known more for his passing (5.5 assists per), court vision and ability to guide the offense. Mason, who is second in the Big Ten in assists, also averages more than a steal a night too.
During Maryland-Minnesota Part I, Mason scored 14 points on just 2-of-10 from the field, while dishing out four assists.
At 2-guard is graduate transfer Akeem Springs, who is averaging 9.9 points on 38 percent from the field and 39 percent from 3. Springs adds three boards and an assist or two as well. He went off against the Terps Jan. 28, dropping in 28 points on 9-of-15 from the field and 3-of-7 from 3.
Rotating in in the backcourt is sophomore Dupree McBrayer, a former starter who drops 10.4 points on 43 percent shooting and 38 percent from distance. McBrayer records a couple boards, assists and a steal per game too. During the initial UMD game, he had five points, four assists and three rebounds.
At wing, freshman Amir Coffey scores 12.3 points per game, is 46 percent from the field and 34.7 percent from 3-point land. Coffey grabs four rebounds a game and racks up just under three assists.
The lengthy wing had quite a game during the initial Terps’ matchup, scoring 11 points; dropping nine dimes; and grabbing five rebounds.
In the frontcourt, sophomore forward Jordan Murphy is coming off a 16-point effort against Michigan and is up to 10.7 points per game. He hits at a 48.5 percent rate, but isn’t much of a deep threat or a free-throw shooter. Murphy, however, tops the team in rebounds (8.5 per) and is second in blocks (1.1 per).
The forward had 10 points, four rebounds and two blocks in the first UMD-Minnesota affair.
Rounding out the lineup is 6-foot-10 center Reggie Lynch, who’s the most proficient shot blocker in the conference. Lynch averages three rejections per game, putting him among the top-five nationally in that category. Lynch also chips in 6.4 boards and 8.3 points per game.
He recorded 10 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks against Maryland.
Rotating in with Lynch is freshman Eric Curry, who plays about half the game and averages six points on 45 percent from the field. He contributes 5.5 rebounds, an assist and a block per night too.
Against the Terps, Curry had five points, 10 boards, three assists and two rejections.
While the Gophers have weapons and won’t be pushovers, at least the Terps will be playing in front of their home crowd. The players, as a whole, said they feed off the fans’ energy, particularly on the defensive end.
“We should have great crowds at all the home games coming up. Big–time game against Minnesota, [Feb. 25] we’re honoring the national championship team, and the Michigan State game is senior day,” Turgeon said. “It should be a lot of fun just to be home in this building. We’re looking forward to it.”