Maryland men’s basketball fans had been waiting for the type of performance forward Michal Cekovsky delivered Saturday against No. 16 Purdue.
After Cekovsky’s productive nonconference slate, highlighted by his 16 points and eight rebounds in the Terps’ win over Kansas State on Nov. 26, the 7-foot-1, 250-pound junior missed the first six Big Ten games with a left ankle injury. He returned for Maryland’s home tilt against Rutgers on Jan. 24 but combined to play 15 minutes over the next three contests. Coach Mark Turgeon was easing Cekovsky back into the rotation, citing the Slovakian had to return to basketball shape.
Cekovsky took another step forward in Maryland’s 73-72 loss Saturday, scoring 10 points and tallying a career-high six blocks in 13 minutes. He’ll look to build on that performance when Maryland (20-3, 8-2 Big Ten) plays at Penn State (12-12, 4-7) on Tuesday.
“He’s just getting his mindset back right and being more confident,” forward Damonte Dodd said. “We know Ceko can do that, and it’s encouraging seeing he did it tonight.”
Turgeon said Cekovsky would have played more minutes against the Boilermakers had he not “tweaked” his foot, forcing him to the bench with less than three minutes remaining. Still, he isn’t concerned with Cekovsky’s status for Tuesday. Barring foul trouble, the sixth-year coach wants to increase his big man’s playing time as Maryland goes for its sixth straight road win.
“We’re the one team for the most part that can go head up at the post defensively [with Purdue],” Turgeon said. “And if Ceko gets healthier, hopefully we can add a low-post game to our offense, which will really help us as we move forward.”
Turgeon said Cekovsky put together an encouraging performance Saturday, especially on defense, where he guarded Issac Haas and Caleb Swanigan, each of whom are at least least 6-foot-9 and 250 pounds. Swanigan, an All-American candidate, ranks first in the conference in rebounds per game (12.8) and second in points (19.1).
While none of the Terps’ big men could consistently stop Swanigan, who led all scorers with 26 points and 10 boards, Cekovsky forced the Purdue frontcourt into difficult looks around the rim. Five of his six swats came against the Boilermakers’ duo. The sixth block, meanwhile, capped Cekovsky’s most impressive sequence of the game.
The Terps were leading 34-31 when Cekovsky denied Swanigan’s jumper with about a minute left in the first half before Purdue regained possession and knotted the score with a 3-pointer.
On Maryland’s next trip, Cekovsky positioned himself inside to grab guard Melo Trimble’s errant layup attempt and convert the and-one put back.
After he missed the free throw, Swanigan secured the rebound, setting up the final opening-period possession. With 22 seconds to play, Purdue guard Carsen Edwards looked to have a clear path to the basket after receiving a ball screen. Cekovsky, who was guarding the screen-man, chased down Edwards and capped the first 20 minutes with a vicious left-handed swat.
“Ceko was terrific, wasn’t he?” Turgeon said. “God, it was fun to watch.”
“I’m just trying to make an impact on defense every time,” Cekovsky added. “It was nothing different this game. I was just trying to play my role and make an impact on defense, protect the rim.”
Maryland has dealt with a rash of frontcourt injuries, as Dodd, Cekovsky and forward Ivan Bender have all missed time. Saturday marked one of the only contests where Turgeon had the trio available.
So as Cekovsky continues to return to full strength, the Terps are pleased with their depth entering the Big Ten stretch run.
“We still have Dion coming back. We know he can be a big part of our team, too,” guard Kevin Huerter said. “And Ceko isn’t fully healthy. So we’re pretty good right now, and we’re not even at full strength.”