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What Maryland basketball can do after Michal Cekovsky’s injury

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It isn’t ideal, but the Terps may have to look to Justin Jackson to help replace their fallen big man.

NCAA Basketball: Barclays Center Classic-Maryland vs Kansas State Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Maryland basketball’s Michal Cekovsky is going to miss the rest of the season with a broken ankle. His absence cuts into an already too-thin frontcourt.

The Terps were going to have to be near-perfect to make a run in the NCAA tournament; now their margin of error has trimmed that much more.

“We gotta move on without him, but we’ve played a lot of games and won a lot of games without him too,” coach Mark Turgeon told reporters Tuesday. “Does Ceko give us something no one else on our team can give? Yeah, absolutely, so we’re gonna miss that.”

Cekovsky missed 10 games this season with various other injuries, and the Terps went 9-1. He played less than 10 minutes in six others, and the team went 5-1. Some of that should be credited to the emergence of Damonte Dodd, who’s had a solid senior season, and some wins can be written off as easy non-conference ones. But if anything’s been confirmed in Maryland’s losses to Purdue and Wisconsin, it’s the team’s inability to guard quick, strong power forwards like Ethan Happ and Caleb Swanigan. More of those beasts lie outside of the Big Ten, and the Terps are missing the personnel to contain them.

Cekovsky is the team’s third-best defender by way of defensive rating, and swatted 14 percent of shots in conference play. His presence was astounding, and when he could keep out of foul trouble, his 7’1 frame altered any shot around the rim.

This was a lost season for Cekovsky, and after the Terps found ways to win without him, his role was never defined. He showed signs of becoming a real offensive threat on the inside, but wasn’t able to stay on the court long enough to become a consistent option. A late-season spurt from the big man could have broken Maryland through its tournament ceiling, but the Terps will have to find other ways to win.

What now?

L.G. Gill and Ivan Bender haven’t had strong seasons, save for a few outliers, and were likely to see less floor time as rotations are typically cut in the postseason. That changes now, and Bender seems most likely to take on a larger role playing the five and swapping in for Dodd.

“LG’s played some center for us, Ivan’s obviously played a ton of center for us,” Turgeon said. “So our rotation changes a little bit. We’ll be a little bit smaller. But we’ve played a lot of games without Ceko this year, so we know how to do it.”

Maryland essentially doesn’t have a low-post scorer other than lob and layup recipients, and guard play will be more important than ever. Melo Trimble is peaking at the perfect time, coming off a 59-point, two-game stretch where he shot 62 percent from the field and 67 percent from deep.

Bender has shown some promise defending in the paint. He’s embraced his lack of verticality, and instead stayed disciplined as a sturdy base, not allowing shots to fly uncontested. His defensive rating ranks just below Cekovsky’s.

Gill isn’t a power forward or center. We’ve learned what he can do — shoot a solid percentage from 15-or-so feet out — but defensively he isn’t made to fight in the post.

There’s an experiment worth trying

Freshman Justin Jackson is Maryland’s highest-rated defensive player. He’s a bit undersized to play the center position, at just 6’7, but his 7’3 wingspan more than compensates.

If the Terps don’t have great defensive options, they may as well opt to play Jackson out of position and see where he stands. If he can rebound well enough, the Terps may be able to survive on that end in small stretches, while deploying their most lethal offensive unit.

With Jackson stretching out to the three-point, the lane will be clear for Trimble, Anthony Cowan, Jaylen Brantley, and whoever else slashes to the hoop. With Jackson on the floor, Maryland can also play to its strength: speed.

A rotation that includes Trimble, Cowan, Brantley, Kevin Huerter and Jackson gives the Terps five shooting options, and everyone would be capable of running the break. The lineup wouldn’t be able to run for long stretches, but if minutes are budgeted properly, it’s one way to fill in for some of Cekovsky’s missing time.

The Terrapins have four more regular season games to find their postseason rotations, and it won’t be easy. But Jackson’s versatility gives them another option.