Injuries often clouded Mark Turgeon's opinion of his Maryland basketball teams going into conference openers through the first five years of his tenure in College Park, and this season is no different.
While the progress of past teams has been slowed when the guards have been hurt — from Pe'Shon Howard to Seth Allen to Dez Wells — this year's team has been stymied by injuries to its two true centers.
Junior Michal Cekovsky has seemingly recovered from the hamstring and foot issues that kept him out of a bulk of preseason practice and the first four games of the season, but senior Damonte Dodd is still dealing with a sprained knee ligament going into Tuesday's Big Ten opener.
Dodd, who hurt his left knee in practice after having one of his best games as a Terp (12 points, eight rebounds, three blocks against Oklahoma State on Dec. 3) could miss his fifth straight game Tuesday when Maryland (12-1) plays Illinois (10-3) at Xfinity Center.
Redshirt sophomore forward Ivan Bender missed some preseason practice with a fractured wrist and later sat out a game with a bruised knee, and redshirt sophomore guard Dion Wiley missed last Tuesday's win over Charlotte in Baltimore with a sprained wrist and an earlier win over Towson with the stomach flu. Wiley should be back for the Big Ten opener.
As a result, Turgeon has had his full complement of players only once this season.
"It's been tough at this point to reach our full potential," Turgeon said on a teleconference Monday. "So yeah, I don't think we've been able to improve at the rate I'd like us to improve or figure out how we're going to play because of injuries."
That he has started three freshmen for nearly the entire season — guard Anthony Cowan and wing Kevin Huerter have started every game, and forward Justin Jackson has started all but the first two — hasn't hurt the Terps so far, Turgeon said.
"The freshmen have been pretty consistent, to be honest with you," Turgeon said. "[I'm] proud of them. I think our guard play has been terrific, that's what has kept us in it. We've defended just well enough to win games."
Maryland's only loss — a 73-59 thumping by Pittsburgh at Xfinity Center on Nov. 29 in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge — came against the biggest team the Terps have faced before Illinois.
The Terps came into the game against the Panthers two days after winning the second of back-to-back down-to-the-wire games over Kansas State in the Barclays Center Classic. And they could face another physical test from the Fightin' Illini.
"I think the Pittsburgh game is just where we were at the time. It had nothing to do with matchups, we were just exhausted in that game," Turgeon said. "I hate making excuses; it was a different game. I think this team is bigger and they score a little bit better on the block. This team is much bigger and stronger than Pittsburgh."
Statistically, Maryland ranks in the bottom half of the Big Ten in nearly every category, including 12th in field goal percentage (43.9), 11th in three-point shooting (34.0), 10th in rebounding difference (plus 3.4) and 13th in assists (13.2).
Despite those deficiencies, the Terps are 12-1 for the third time in Turgeon's tenure.
Asked if winning so many close games — and having to come from second-half deficits in half of the team's victories — is an indication of how resilient the Terps are or how much room there is for improvement, Turgeon said that he can see it both ways.
"We've done some amazing things late in games and when our backs are against the wall we defend well enough and we execute at a high level," Turgeon said. "We're nowhere near where we could be had we stayed healthy and where we can be if we can get healthy down the road. Every league game is hard, you've just got to figure out a way to play well on game night and win that game."
With only one top 50 win — over Oklahoma State — the question remains as to how many wins in the Big Ten will help get the Terps their third straight NCAA tournament bid. One thing is clear: Junior guard Melo Trimble will have to stay healthy for Maryland to get there.
Trimble appears to have emerged from a prolonged shooting slump the past two games (13 of 19 overall, seven of 11 from three-point range), and so have the Terps (54 of 102 overall, 22 of 42 on three-pointers).
"We set ourselves up pretty well being 12-1 to start the year," Trimble said after the Terps beat Charlotte in Baltimore last week. "We just have to have the mindset that we need to keep doing what we are doing.
"The Big Ten is different. Every game is not going to be easy. Every team is going to give us their best shot, just like they did in non-conference. Practice has to be better and the way we approach games has to be better."
While the Terps have yet to play a ranked opponent and have needed second-half comebacks to win half their games, their RPI is a respectable 22nd nationally, behind only Minnesota (No. 8) among Big Ten teams.
Turgeon believes that Maryland's non-conference schedule has prepared the Terps for the Big Ten.
"I think we've played a nice schedule, I think we've been through some tough situations, it's definitely prepared us," Turgeon said. "We've played some big teams and some good teams. If we just get healthy, that's the key, but we're prepared for the league."
NOTES: It was announced that Maryland's home game against Nebraska on Jan. 1 will start at noon.