- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 13, 2016

With University of Maryland senior center Damonte Dodd out of the lineup with a sprained medial collateral ligament for the foreseeable future, an opportunity was presented to center Michal Cekovsky — and the Slovakian-born big man has flourished.

Since Dodd’s injury, Cekovsky has averaged 13 points per game over three contests, making 75 percent of his shots in the paint and adding two blocks per game to his stat line.

A physically intimidating player, he’s become a dominating presence down low for the Terrapins. At 7-foot-1, 250 pounds, he’s the largest player on Maryland’s roster, and opposing teams are having difficulties matching up.

Against the smaller Howard University Bisons last week, Maryland took an inside-out offensive approach, bringing the ball down the court and heaving up lobs for Cekovsky, who was consistently planted under the hoop. If he could power his way to the rim, he would. If he didn’t have a lane, he’d kick the ball out to someone waiting on the perimeter. Cekovsky finished with 16 points.

The strategy continued against Jacksonville State. With another noticeable size advantage under the basket, the Terps fed Cekovsky, who responded with two monstrous slams en route to adding another 15 points to his junior year resume.

“When he gets the ball in the block, he can really do it all, and he’s a really good passer,” freshman teammate Kevin Huerter said. “He’s really effective when we can get the ball down to him, because he can score and he’s so big, he can pass over anyone. He’s unselfish. So, when we get the ball to him, usually good things happen.”

Cekovsky is the latest product to emerge from coach Mark Turgeon’s European talent pipeline. Born in Kosice, Slovakia, the player affectionately known as “Ceko” is one of three European-born big men Turgeon has recruited to College Park since his hiring in 2011.

Cekovsky and teammate Ivan Bender are currently on the team, but it’s Cekovsky who seems to be following the trajectory of Alex Len, the European who preceded them both in the program. Len, drafted with the fifth-overall pick by the Phoenix Suns in the 2013 NBA draft, averaged 11.9 points per game his sophomore year before declaring for the NBA early.

Turgeon has similar high expectations for his current young center.

“I talk to Ceko more than anybody,” Turgeon said. “I coach him more than anybody on the team. He probably hears my voice in his sleep. But, there’s a lot of potential there.”

The offensive skills are readily apparent. On the defensive end and on the boards, Cekovsky has room for improvement.

Turgeon says Cekovsky is one of the better defenders on the team, but needs to work on his timing to win more rebounds. If Len’s sophomore season is a benchmark, Cekovsky isn’t quite there. Cekovsky is pulling down just 3.5 boards per game this year, and just 2.7 rebounds per game since Dodd has been absent. Len averaged 7.8 per game his sophomore year.

Considering Cekovsky sometimes has a six-inch advantage over opposing team’s starting forwards — as he did against both Howard and Saint Peter’s — the 12-1 Terrapins want to see those rebounding averages grow.

The number of times he’s been whistled for fouls is further evidence of Cekovsky’s timing problem: Since becoming the starter, Cekovsky is averaging 3.3 fouls per game.

Cekovsky said eliminating fouls is always a point of emphasis. But he said he’s noticing things are starting to click for him.

“I feel more comfortable on the court, defense and offense,” Cekovsky said. “It’s getting better every game, I feel better every game. I’m getting there.”

Cekovsky is bringing an element to the Terrapins’ attack they didn’t have with Dodd: a point-providing center who can help facilitate a ball-moving offense. Cekovsky is a threat under the basket, while Dodd is known more for his defensive prowess. Prior to his injury, Dodd averaged 5.9 points per game, the most in his four-year career, but Dodd has still never scored more than 13 points in a game in the 100 he’s participated in his Maryland career. Cekovsky has recorded at least 15 points in a game three times this year alone.

With no clear indication of how long Dodd will be out, Cekovsky is going to continue to get more opportunities to prove himself and grow. In just three showcases since Dodd’s injury, Cekovsky may have already warranted a decision.

“I think Ceko is moving towards being the starter to be honest with you with the way he’s playing,” Turgeon said.

The 12-1 Terrapins face the 6-3 UNC Charlotte 49ers Tuesday in Baltimore.

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