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Maryland center Michal Cekovsky raising his confidence and his game

Maryland center Michal Cekovsky raising his confidence and his game
Terps center Michal Cekovsky puts back a dunk against Kansas State during the championship game of the Barclays Center Classic on November 26, 2016 in Brooklyn, N.Y. (Michael Reaves / Getty Images)

There's a different air surrounding Maryland center Michal Cekovsky these days, both on and off the basketball court.

More than two years after arriving from Slovakia, Cekovsky seems more confident in his game and more comfortable with his surroundings than ever before.

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Going into Saturday night's game against Oklahoma State (6-1) at Xfinity Center, the 7-1, 250-pound center is finally getting consistent minutes in coach Mark Turgeon's rotation and, after showing flashes when he played sporadically as a freshman and even less as a sophomore, producing more than respectable numbers.

In the four games since returning from a hamstring injury and a sprained foot, Cekovsky has averaged 10.3 and 4.8 rebounds in 17.8 minutes a game.

"I think he's getting closer [to being in shape]. The key is staying out of foul trouble for him and Damonte [Dodd] so they can give us both more minutes," Turgeon said of his two centers. "It's exciting because Ceko's playing well and he's not in great shape yet."

While he is still coming off the bench — his first three games behind redshirt junior Ivan Bender and behind Dodd in Tuesday night's 73-59 loss to Pittsburgh in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge — Cekovsky is quickly making Turgeon consider starting him if he continues to get in better shape.

"I think he's doing some amazing things," Turgeon said. "He didn't start practicing until the day before Stony Brook [on Nov. 22]. To do what he's doing in such a short time is great. I don't think his timing's there yet. He's still a little bit rushed on offense and his defense is nowhere near where it's going to be and his rebounding isn't where it's going to be. But he's doing some great things in a short time."

Cekovsky said his dramatic increase in production — he averaged under three points and three rebounds in around 10 minutes a game his first two years — has a lot to do with being more fluent in English and more knowledgeable about Turgeon's system.

"I understand more [of] the game right now, the spacing, what's going on with the offense better, just more comfortable," he said. "I got stronger over the summer, so that helped me a lot."

Turgeon and his teammates have noticed.

"He's much more confident. He was more confident before he started to get hurt when school started," Turgeon said. "He had a tremendous summer. He's gotten bigger, more athletic. He feels like he's paid his dues, so it's kind of his time."

Said junior point guard Melo Trimble: "He's a much better player. His confidence, I've seen it over the summer, he stayed here in August when everybody went home and he was with Kyle [Tarp, the director of basketball performance] and worked with one our managers, Mike [Williams]. Once you get better, it's going to show on the court and it's showing now."

Cekovsky is giving the Terps something they haven't had since Alex Len left Maryland after the 2012-13 season: a big man who can run the court and play above the rim.

"He can catch [alley] oops," Trimble said. "His skill set on offense is something we haven't had in awhile in the post, with the right-hand hook and the left-handed hook. Once he gets his confidence going and he's just out there playing basketball and not worrying about making mistakes or anything like that, he's very effective."

After only one practice, Cekovsky finished with 11 points on 5-for-7 shooting and two rebounds, but fouled out in 16 minutes against Stony Brook. In Maryland's down-to-the-wire win over Kansas State in the championship game of the Barclays Center Classic on Saturday, Cekovsky had 16 points on 7-for-11 shooting and eight rebounds — all career-highs — in 18 minutes.

Even in the loss to Pittsburgh — the first for Maryland after a 7-0 start — Cekovsky was one of the few bright spots, scoring 10 points in 20 minutes and making all four of his shots, with three rebounds and two blocked shots. For the season, Cekovsky is shooting a team-best 69.2 percent, making 18 of his 26 shots.

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Asked how comfortable he is feeling since coming back, Cekovsky said Friday, "I'm feeling more comfortable every day, it's a process. I'm practicing more and more, I didn't practice a lot at the beginning because of my injuries. I'm feeling better every game."

Cekovsky – pronounced Check-OV-ski but called 'Checko' since the day he arrived – doesn't get too excited about his fast start.

"I think my role is to help the team every game, and I'm trying to do that every game," Cekovsky said before practice Friday. "It doesn't matter who scores the most points as long as we win the game. My role is a little bit different last year. I just feel like [I had] to stay positive. I feel more comfortable because this is my third year."

It has been a long road for Cekovsky to get to this point in his career. Heralded as the equivalent of a four-star prospect — one NBA general manager said when he signed with Maryland that he would likely play just two years in college — Cekovsky's adjustment has been slow.

It didn't surprise Turgeon, who saw how nervous and unsure Cekovsky looked during early practices in an empty arena as a freshman and knew sellout crowds, even at home, might intimidate him. It also didn't help that Cekovsky's English was limited to a few words.

"Definitely the language barrier my first two years, especially in the first one, was hard for me," Cekovsky said. "Now, when I get better with the language, I understand more. It's definitely easier for me."

Longtime college basketball television analyst Dan Bonner, who will work his third Maryland game this season Saturday, said he always thought Cekovsky was skilled for a big man but "he just looked like a guy who has matured as a basketball player and as a person."

Bonner said adjusting for any freshman is difficult, but for a player who didn't speak English it might have been too big a task.

"It's a tremendous adjustment that he's had to make," Bonner said. "I can't imagine going to a place where I don't speak the language and I have to learn the language, I have to go to college in this place, and I have to play basketball. All you have to do is sit in on a practice and it sounds like they're speaking a foreign language to me."

Playing behind Dodd as a freshman, and then behind Dodd and freshman Diamond Stone last season, Cekovsky did show flashes.

In a 24-minute stint against Wisconsin as a freshman — his longest in the Big Ten Conference that season — Cekovsky neutralized All-American and eventual Wooden Award winner Frank Kaminsky — and helped the 14th-ranked Terps take an 11-point halftime lead in a 59-53 upset of the No. 5 Badgers.

In the team's season-ending 79-63 loss to Kansas in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament last year, Cekovsky shut down Perry Ellis for the last seven minutes of the first half after the Jayhawks forward scored 12 points against Robert Carter Jr. Cekovsky didn't play in the second half and Ellis finished with a game-high 27.

Cekovsky doesn't think about what happened his first two years.

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"I focus on the next game, it doesn't matter what was in the past," he said. "This is my third year; Rob [Carter] left, Diamond [Stone] left. I'm just trying to play every game the best that I can. I don't think about it like that, I'm just trying to help the team."

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