The moment it happened, when Maryland men’s basketball center Michal Cekovsky stepped on the foot of a Wisconsin player and was helped to the visitor’s locker room at the Kohl Center in February, Anthony Cowan knew that the dynamic of his team’s season had been changed dramatically.
“Ceko was a pretty good inside presence. Whenever we felt like we needed a bucket, whenever he was in, I think he gave us good minutes and scoring in the paint. That’s what we missed, because Damonte [Dodd] was kind of a different player,” Cowan said Tuesday on Media Day. “I think he [Cekovsky] definitely changes our team.”
The injury, a broken left ankle, turned out to be terrible news for the 7-foot-1 Slovakian, who had seemingly finally moved past the preseason and early-season maladies that had hindered him for months and the inconsistent play of his first two seasons as a Terp.
The outcome was even worse for Maryland, which lost four of its last six games without Cekovsky.
“It was super tough, just seeing how much better we were with him on the floor,” said Cowan, now a sophomore and again the team’s starting point guard. “But now that he’s getting healthy, he’s looking a lot better. I’m excited to see what he can do.”
The Terps and their fans will start to see that when Maryland begins its 2017-18 season Nov. 10 against Stony Brook at the Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, N.Y. In his first game since the injury, Cekovsky finished with six points and one rebound in 17 minutes of an 88-44 exhibition victory over Division III Randolph-Macon on Thursday night at Xfinity Center.
Though he looked a bit rusty, Cekovsky appeared to come through without any noticeable problems with the foot, including falling hard on both feet after getting slightly undercut and fouled going up for a lob. Another good sign came when Cekovsky ran the floor and took a short lob from freshman guard Darryl Morsell (Mount Saint Joseph) for a dunk.
Despite never being fully healthy after suffering a hamstring injury over the summer before his junior year, then spraining a toe right before the season opener and missing the first six Big Ten games when he sprained his left ankle, Cekovsky had his best year statistically.
Cekovsky averaged career-highs of 7.6 points, 2.8 rebounds and 1.2 blocks in only 13.2 minutes a game.He also shot a career-best 67.1 percent from the field.
The broken ankle was just the culmination of a frustrating year for Cekovsky.
“Every injury was frustrating,” he said. “For every player, whoever plays sports, it’s hard. I think I was good when I had the small injuries. I was trying to be mentally tough, try to think positively. My teammates, my coaches, everybody did a great job helping. When I broke my ankle, I couldn’t do anything. I had to get surgery, start the new process of thinking about next season.”
Since getting out of a walking boot in early spring, Cekovsky has slowly worked himself back into the kind of shape he will need to endure a full season as a full-time starter for the first time.
“I think I’m getting there. I’m very close to 100 percent,” Cekovsky said Tuesday. “Now it’s quite more mentally. I think my leg is feeling great. Last year was a lot of small injuries during the season [before the broken ankle]. … Stuff like that was always going on. Hopefully all the bad luck is behind me.”
Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said that when the team started preseason practice a little over a month ago, Cekovsky “was limping pretty good. His ankle was sound, but mentally he wasn’t there yet. It’s been a real process for him. When he jumps, he’ll land on the good one. It’s more of a mental thing for him.”
At practice Monday, which Turgeon called Cekovsky’s best workout of the preseason, the Terps coach said, “I didn’t see him favoring that foot for the first time. When I went back and watched film, he was much more confident. He’s getting more confidence down there because we’re throwing the ball in there more. Last year we never really threw the ball in there.”
For Cekovsky, it’s the beginning of the end of a college career that came with much hype. A late signee in 2014 after playing at the same academy in the Canary Islands that produced current teammate Joshua Tomaic, Cekovsky was labeled by one NBA general manager a “two-and-done” player whose length, athleticism and shooting range made him an intriguing pro prospect.
But stuck behind Dodd, Cekovsky was a nervous freshman who struggled with learning both the English language and the American game. He later struggled to get consistent playing time behind both Dodd and five-star prospect Diamond Stone as a sophomore.
Asked what his goal is for his senior year, Cekovsky said: “Same for me as a person. Trying to help the team win, especially on the defensive end, get the rebounds, protect the rim. And on offense, the same. Offensive rebounds will be very important, then in the low post, if I can score, it will be perfect.”
Cekovsky and 6-10 freshman Bruno Fernando give the Terps a dimension they sorely lacked last season — big men who can start a fast break with a block or rebound at one end of the court and finish at the other end with a thunderous dunk. Despite the nagging injuries, Cekovsky demonstrated it often.
“That was always like my game. I think for 7 feet I move pretty well. I run pretty well. ... I can use that against other big men who are not that good athletes, good runners,” Cekovsky said. “That’s part of my game that I'm going to try to use.”
A long way from the gawky kid who stood silently in sandals shortly after arriving from Europe to watch summer workouts, Cekovsky is comfortable with the language, with his surroundings and mostly with himself.
“I’m very excited,” he said. “This is my last season. I’m going to enjoy it with my team, my friends, my second family. I got here when I was a kid. Now I’m a senior, I’m 23 years old. I feel like a grown man right now. I’m trying to finish school, do the right thing. I know the system. I know how everything works.”