Maryland men’s basketball coach Mark Turgeon knew Friday night that redshirt junior forward Ivan Bender would likely be out for the season after injuring his right knee against UMBC at Xfinity Center.
Turgeon also knew almost immediately what he was going to do in the absence of Bender and sophomore forward Justin Jackson, who was lost for the year with a torn labrum in his right shoulder.
“I think I even told Ceko before we left the building that I was going to go with a big lineup,” Turgeon said Tuesday night, after unveiling the pairing of 7-foot-1 senior Michal Cekovsky and 6-10 freshman Bruno Fernando.
Starting together for the first time since the second game of the season — as well as both recording career highs in minutes — the two biggest Terps played a significant role in Maryland’s 75-69 victory over Penn State on Tuesday.
Fernando, who had shown promise despite spraining each ankle since preseason practice began, finished with his first career double double of 17 points and 11 rebounds in 32 minutes.
“He’s one of the best bigs I’ve played with so far,” said sophomore guard Anthony Cowan Jr., who led the Terps with 18 points while playing all 40 minutes. “Just the way he defends and how much energy he plays with and how he finishes around the basket.”
Cekovsky, whose own career had been interrupted after breaking his left ankle late last season, finished with 10 points, six rebounds and two assists in 29 minutes.
“I thought Ceko was much better in the second half than he was in the first half,” Turgeon said. “And I thought the dunk kind of set the tone for the end of the game because we weren’t playing as tough as we needed to play, and that was a big-time play by him.”
The dunk came with the score tied at 61 with just over four minutes to play. After sophomore guard Kevin Huerter’s running hook ricocheted high off the backboard, Cekovsky grabbed the rebound and dunked with two hands while getting fouled. Though he missed the free throw, the dunk gave the Terps a lead they would not lose.
It also came as Cekovsky was playing a different position. Knowing the learning curve for each player, it was Cekovsky who Turgeon had take a crash course in being a power forward in Maryland’s system after spending his entire college career as a center.
“I feel confident with Ceko guarding a perimeter guy with his length,” Turgeon said. “He’s smart. He’s been around. It’s been hard for Ceko because he had to learn [power forward] offensively because we don’t want to confuse Fernando. In two days, he had to learn it.”
Cekovsky said he’s received on-court tutoring from his injured teammates during the practices leading up to the Penn State game, as well as instruction from Turgeon on how to play a position he hadn’t played since high school.
“I think it gives us more length, especially in a zone defense,” Cekovsky said. “I think it’s also going to help us in the rebounding, too, with that size. It’s good for us.”
Cekovsky and Fernando, as well as the rest of the Terps, have only one day to get ready for what figures to be their most difficult test of the season. Maryland (13-3, 2-1 Big Ten) plays No. 1 Michigan State (14-1, 2-0) on Thursday night at the Breslin Center in East Lansing.
“It’s going to be a good game with their crowd. Michigan State is always like a big game every year. I’ve been here four years and it’s a great game there every time,” Cekovsky said. “It’s going to be a great challenge.”
As significant as the play of the big men was in beating the Nittany Lions, it will be even more vital if the Terps want any chance of pulling off a huge upset of the Spartans, who have one of the biggest and most talented frontcourts in the country.
Cekovsky will likely be matched up with sophomore power forward Nick Ward, the reigning Big Ten Player of the Week who torched the Terps for 22 points and 16 rebounds in Maryland’s 63-60 win last season at Xfinity Center.
Fernando will have to contend with fellow freshman center Jaren Jackson Jr., a nearly unanimous preseason pick for Big Ten Rookie of the Year who at 6-11 and 242 pounds will be one of the few players the Maryland freshman will face this season bigger than himself.
The rest of the Terps — most likely by committee — will have to figure out how to slow sophomore forward Miles Bridges, the preseason pick for Big Ten Player of the Year who leads the Spartans in scoring (17.0 points per game) and rebounding (7.8 per game).
Asked about the advantage it gives Maryland to have their two big men play together, Fernando said: “I think we’ll get a lot more rebounds and we’ll be able to stop people more on the defensive side. This is one thing that we’ve probably worked on for just a few days.”
Cowan believes it will also benefit Maryland offensively.
“I know when we drive the ball, it’s easy for me to lob the ball up to them,” Cowan said. “I’ve just got to make the right read regardless of whether the big man steps up or he doesn’t. As long as I do that, I think playing two bigs will be fine.”
Based on what they did against the Nittany Lions, there is still more work to be done.
While Maryland wound up even on the boards with Penn State — only the second time this season the Terps didn’t have an advantage — 6-9 sophomore Mike Watkins had a career-high 17 to go with 17 points.
“I know [Watkins] was a load for them, but I think Ceko and Bruno really came in and had a good game in terms of rebounding,” Cowan said. “We just have to keep doing that.”
Part of Maryland’s success against Penn State was staying out of foul trouble. Cekovsky, who has been prone to foul in bunches throughout his career, picked up just two. Fernando, who had been on the brink of fouling out of five games this season, had only one.
“The key tonight is that they stayed out of foul trouble,” Turgeon said after the Penn State game. “That’s big moving forward. … They’re both really good players. I think if we can figure it out offensively to be efficient with that lineup, that’s the key.”