College Park — As a freshman three years ago, Michal Cekovsky barely spoke any English and hardly seemed ready to assume a starting role on the Maryland men's basketball team.
Fellow freshman Jared Nickens certainly knew the language, but aside from knocking down some clutch 3-pointers, you'd barely notice he was there.
Now seniors, Cekovsky and Nickens are among the most welcoming players on coach Mark Turgeon's 2017-18 team. Then again, it doesn't take much to make two of this year's freshmen feel as if they belong.
We met on our official visit and we clicked right away.— Darryl Morsell on his camaraderie with Bruno Fernando
From the start of preseason practice, Bruno Fernando and Darryl Morsell (Mount Saint Joseph) have not often acted, or played, like college basketball newbies.
"Since day one, those two guys fit in immediately. It was like they had already been here since last season," Nickens said at Media Day on Tuesday. "On and off the court, we just have that chemistry, that bond. Everything [with them] feels so natural."
That was evident during Midnight Madness, when the two freshmen became the team's leading dancers in a competition against members of the women's team. It wasn't because of some hazing ritual similar to NFL teams making rookies singing their college fight song.
"We went out there and danced and didn't really care what people thought and showed ourselves," Morsell said Tuesday. "We think the same way on the court."
The camaraderie Fernando and Morsell have began during the recruiting process.
"We met on our official visit and we clicked right away," Morsell said.
But it's more than their personalities that have helped the 6-foot-10, 245-pound Fernando, who will play power forward and center, and the 6-4, 205-pound Morsell, who will be used at both guard spots, make the transition from high school.
While neither will have as a big a role as former star point guard Melo Trimble had as a freshman, and might not start every game as Anthony Cowan and Kevin Huerter did last season, both are expected to be major contributors.
"Unfortunately guys had to play a lot as freshmen, because guys leave, guys move on. It's really hard in college basketball to really build it and keep guys around. It's just a different climate," Turgeon said Tuesday. "But with that said, I like these two a lot."
Said Fernando: "I think that was one of the things that made me choose Maryland, just knowing how much confidence Coach Turgeon puts in the freshmen once they come in. He just lets them play their game. … He actually gives you the freedom to do what you can do."
Joining a team that got bullied out of the NCAA tournament in the Round of 64 by Xavier, the two freshmen along with 6-9, 250-pound graduate transfer Sean Obi are expected to give the Terps much-needed toughness.
"Darryl gives us a defender on the perimeter that we really needed. He's got great size, good rebounder. He's a winner," Turgeon said. "It's a guy that loves to compete, loves to do the right things to win. He's not afraid to do the little things that help you be successful."
Morsell said being physical goes back to his days playing youth football and in recreational basketball leagues around Baltimore.
"Growing up I was usually one of the bigger guys, so I played forward or big man," he said. "My father made me play football when I was little, so that kind of instilled some toughness into me. I just try to win. That's it."
When Fernando fully recovers from a left ankle sprain he suffered in practice two weeks ago, he could quickly become one of Maryland's best players at both ends of the floor.It starts with his energy.
"He's one of the hardest-playing dudes I've ever been around. He's a hard-playing dude that we really haven't had," Turgeon said. "I guess he's a 6-10 Dez Wells, plays that hard, that competitive. He plays to exhaustion."
Said Cekovsky: "He's definitely ahead of me when I was a freshman. He's almost fluent [in English]. He doesn't have a problem with that. When I was a freshman I couldn't talk. His body doesn't need a lot of improvements that I needed when I came. He's a strong guy."
Aside from his physical tools, Fernando is not afraid to show his emotions "in a good way." That is something the Terps haven't had from a young player since Wells transferred from Xavier as a sophomore, and even then it took awhile to come out.
Asked about his on-court persona, Fernando joked: "I just think I'm a very loud person. Even my teammates say that. Every time I walk into a room, screaming, yelling, I use that on the court to try to help my teammates, let them know where they are.
"Playing a big guy in college, not just in college, in a basketball game, I think it's as important as any other position. I feel it requires a little more for you to talk. Under the basket, [you] see things better than other people. Being vocal just makes my job and my teammates' job easier."
Fernando concedes that missing time with the injury "has been tough. I hate being on the sidelines." But he's hopeful of making his debut next week. Fernando will likely miss the team's exhibition game Thursday night against Division III Randolph-Macon.
"I hope to have him back for the opener," said Turgeon, whose team starts the 2017-18 season Nov. 10 against Stony Brook at the Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, N.Y.
"I'm just getting better every single day, as the pain goes away, I just keep trying to practice and practice and practice and practice to get back to the way I was before, just like explosiveness and being able to move and run the way I used to," he said.
Given how engaged Fernando was dancing, and not playing, during Maryland Madness, it's hard to image what he will be like in his debut. Asked what he envisions happening when it comes, Fernando smiled broadly.
"I don't know, but it will be crazy," he said.