Michal Cekovsky cringes now at the memory of what it was like for him when he first showed up at Maryland as a scared 20-year-old in the summer of 2014.
Cekovsky weighed 219 pounds, skinny for a 7-footer. He was also painfully shy, not speaking more than a few words of English. Though skilled for a big man, Cekovsky had rarely played with his back to the basket.
"I knew I didn't understand the language and I knew I didn't understand what was going on in practice. It didn't feel good," said Cekovsky, who grew up in Slovakia and finished his high school career at the Canarias Basketball Academy in the Canary Islands. "I just wanted to play. I just wanted to explain if I did something wrong, but I couldn't because I wasn't able to. It was irritating me all the time. I was frustrated."
By the time Ivan Bender got to Maryland in the winter of 2015, he had similar issues to Cekovsky with the language and the adjustment to the American college game. Bender, a 6-9 forward who grew up in Bosnia and Herzegovina and played for a junior team in Croatia, also had another problem — a knee which had undergone two ACL surgeries in two years.
While Cekovsky had to rely mostly on assistant coach Dustin Clark to help him through his freshman year, Bender had Cekovsky. The two communicated in Croatian.
"When I came here for an official visit [Cekovsky's] freshman year, I realized that he understood my language, like he could perfectly speak it, so I was really happy," Bender said. "I knew I had my guy here and if I had any problems, I could ask him. … I had an advantage there because I had him, and he didn't have anybody."
Now it's Joshua Tomaic's turn. Growing up in the Canary Islands, an autonomous part of Spain off the coast of North Africa, Tomaic's mother, Lili, taught her child to speak in her native language, Croatian. He also picked up English watching American movies and in school. Tomaic, a 6-9, 220-pound forward, also speaks German.
Though more comfortable with English than his two fellow European teammates, Tomaic (Toe-MY-itch) still needs guidance from them. That he followed Cekovsky to the Canarias Basketball Academy not only played into Tomaic's decision to come to Maryland but in his transition once he got on campus.
"When he came here, I came to the [CBA]. When I was there, I heard about him," said Tomaic, the first player from the Canary Islands to play for a top-25 Division I men's basketball program. "People were talking about him, and Rob [Orellana], the director, would talk about him sometimes. Having a CBA guy in here, it was like, 'We have a little code or something.' We know how things worked over here. It was kind of feeling a little bit happy knowing that someone has been in the same place as you."
Through the first three weeks of preseason, which continues Saturday with a 3 p.m. public practice before the Maryland-Michigan State football game, Tomaic said Cekovsky and Bender have helped him feel more comfortable on and off the court than they felt a couple of years ago.
"Sometimes when I ask [Cekovsky], he helps me no problem," Tomaic said. "Even if I don't ask him, he will come to the sideline and explain things. Same with Ivan. If I don't understand something, he goes through it. Off the court as well, when I have some questions, 'Where is this, where is that?' They explain [to] me."
Cekovsky and Bender are teaching Tomaic something else — patience. Just as their adjustment to the college game has been slowed by a combination of their own transition and more experienced players being ahead of them, Tomaic might learn that too as a freshman this season.
"It's a big difference," said Bender, whose younger brother, Dragan, was picked fourth overall in the NBA draft by the Phoenix Suns. "It's like another level, especially in mine and [Cekovsky's] country. It's really lower-level basketball. Maybe there are a few teams that are good. The rules are different, and the game is more competitive. You have to be in stronger, bigger bodies. You have to think faster. Game is quicker."
But the biggest difference is in the preparation.
"Here we practice every day, and with [director of basketball performance Kyle Tarp] in the offseason," Bender said. "In my country, the whole summer is off. We have the sea and our country is really beautiful. I just swim. There's no school and we're enjoying. Here, the hardest time is summer with weights and everything. You have to put work in for next season."
Cekovsky, who put on nearly 20 pounds his first year and is now up to 250 pounds going into his junior season, said Tarp's workouts were his "nightmare" when he first came to Maryland and often distracted him when he practiced.
"I was always like thinking, before every practice, 'What are we going to do with Kyle?,'" he said. "Every day was something different. Every day was something new. I was sore from every workout. It wasn't easy."
Bender, who has gained 25 pounds and now weighs 235 pounds going into his redshirt sophomore season, conceded that he did everything he could to avoid Tarp at first, including taking an indirect route back to the locker room after practice.
"Kyle would be stretching guys on the table in front of the weight room," Bender said. "I walk all the way around to avoid him to get back [to the locker room]."
Clark, who recruited Cekovsky and Tomaic by making five separate trips to the Canary Islands, said European players often take longer to develop because they are getting "comfortable with the basketball and comfortable with life" in the U.S.
"From a basketball adjustment, it's the speed and the physicality that is the biggest adjustment," Clark said. "When you talk about style, our game is little more predicated on speed and athleticism and they've got to learn how to adapt because their game is strictly skill-based. The language barrier in terms of the terminology can also dictate how slow or how fast an adjustment period happens."
Cekovsky, who has shown only flashes of potential during his first two seasons, has recently been slowed by a hamstring injury that kept him off the practice court for a few weeks before returning this week.
When the season begins Nov. 11 against American, Cekovsky is hoping to play a bigger role than ever before.
"Diamond [Stone's] gone, Rob [Carter's] gone. Jake [Layman] was playing sometimes at [power forward]," Cekovsky said of last season's frontcourt starters. "So now I feel like it's more opportunity for me. Probably my minutes are going to go up. Have more space and time to show what I can do, inside and a little bit outside. It's going to be a different year than what I showed the last two years."
Bender, who got valuable practice time while Cekovsky was out, showed he can be a voracious rebounder and a good low-post passer during an even smaller sample size as a redshirt freshman last season.
While Cekovsky will likely share minutes at center with Damonte Dodd, Bender is still working his way into a rotation at power forward that now includes graduate transfer L.G. Gill and possibly freshman Justin Jackson.
"We got really good guys under the rim and it's going to be hard to get minutes," Bender said. "You have to deserve it."
Tomaic is even deeper on the bench right now.
But unlike in Cekovsky's freshman season, when he seemed a bit lost at times, he is now looking after both of his fellow Euros.
"They're like my sons," Cekovsky said, sitting with Bender and Tomaic near the court at Xfinity Center. "I'm taking those guys under my wings."