We’ve been doing a positional review of Maryland’s season all week, with a brief interlude courtesy of Melo Trimble. We looked at the guards Monday and the forwards Friday, and we’re finally up to the centers.
After a 2015-16 season in which Maryland basketball’s size was one of its strengths, the Terps found themselves undersized. They lost center Diamond Stone and forward Robert Carter, among others, to the pros. Although Damonte Dodd and Michal Cekovsky had their moments, center was never a position of strength for this team.
Head coach Mark Turgeon only had both those two available in 11 games this season, and there wasn’t much depth behind them. There were no other natural centers on the roster, and everyone else who played the position had plenty of adjustments to make.
Dodd and Cekovsky formed a serviceable duo when healthy.
The two shot 58 and 67 percent from the field, respectively, and both showed they had improved as scoring options. In his final season, Dodd averaged 6.2 points and 4.4 rebounds. He battled injuries early on, but didn’t miss a game after the new year.
Dodd was known primarily as a rim protector throughout his career, and his 2.0 blocks per game were fourth in the Big Ten. Several of the knocks on him, such as his propensity for foul trouble, lingered until the end, but his senior year was by far his best. He developed from an incredibly raw freshman to a starter in the Big Ten, and that’s not nothing.
Cekovsky posted a career-high 7.6 points and 2.8 rebounds per game, but he only played in 17 of Maryland’s 33 contests. The Slovakian junior missed the first four games with a sprained foot, then returned for the last nine games of non-conference play. He established himself quickly, tallying double-digit points six times, including a 16-point, eight-rebound performance in the Terps’ one-point win over Kansas State.
He then missed the first six Big Ten games and was on a minutes restriction for a few more. Cekovsky impressed against Purdue, recording 10 points and six blocks in just 13 minutes, and he was Maryland’s second-leading scorer with 10 at Wisconsin.
But just as Cekovsky was returning to form, he fractured his left ankle late in the second half of the Wisconsin game, ending his season. The Terps dropped four of their last six without him.
Cekovsky’s injuries forced others to play out of position.
Ivan Bender, at 6’9, isn’t quite big or physical enough to contend with the goliaths of the Big Ten. However, he did take a major step forward as a redshirt sophomore, averaging 4.8 points and 3.2 boards. He stepped up when his friend Cekovsky went down, scoring a career-high 15 points against Minnesota and shooting 75 percent in the final six games.
L.G. Gill also spent most of his season masquerading as a center. The graduate transfer spent his first three years playing more or less as a stretch four at Duquesne, but wasn’t able to produce for the Terps in the same way. He made 53 of 154 three-pointers (34.4 percent) as a junior, then went just 3-for-10 from beyond the arc this season.
Gill simply wasn’t fit to play center — he didn’t before he came to Maryland. Bender hadn’t really played college basketball before, and lacks the athleticism required to excel at the position. In situations where these players had to play the five, it seemed as if they attempted to fit their games to the position, rather than playing to their strengths. Some of this is on Turgeon, of course, but the alternative of playing small-ball against big teams would have had its drawbacks, as well. Several fans clamored for a lineup with freshman Justin Jackson at center and shooters surrounding him, but nothing never materialized there.
Bruno Fernando is coming next year, but the Terps won’t want to count on him.
The 6’10 Angolan is the No. 7 center in the Class of 2017, per the 247Sports Composite, so it’s definitely possible he contributes immediately. But as Maryland learned last season with Diamond Stone, even the most talented centers face a steep learning curve at the college level.
It’s possible Maryland pursues a transfer, graduate or otherwise, to bolster depth at the position for the future. If that doesn’t happen, Turgeon’s working with Cekovsky, Bender and Fernando.
The ideal scenario, of course, is that Cekovsky closes his Maryland career with a full healthy season. If the flashes he showed this year can become consistent contributions, then the Terps will have something with him.
Bender figures to get plenty of minutes as a hybrid big next season, while Fernando should provide Turgeon with a more traditional center off the bench. The option to play Jackson or Joshua Tomaic as a stretch five still remains, but Maryland’s plans at the position will definitely center on Cekovsky.