Mark Turgeon pencils in Damonte Dodd as Maryland's starting center, for now

With the season starting a month from Tuesday, there’s still plenty of time for Maryland men's basketball coach Mark Turgeon to settle on a starting lineup. Not that Turgeon hasn’t been thinking about who will take the court at Xfinity Center for the opening tip against Wagner on Nov. 14.

At a breakfast with boosters in Baltimore on Monday, Turgeon made one interesting pronouncement.

“Damonte Dodd’s maybe one of our most improved players,” Turgeon said of the 6-foot-11 sophomore from the Eastern Shore. “If the season starts tonight, Damonte would be our starting center. I feel that would be an upgrade from what we were last year at this time.”

Turgeon said that Dodd, who spent a year at a military prep school in Virginia after high school, now weighs about 255 pounds, an increase of about 15 pounds from last year. His presence inside could be vital to a team whose best shotblockers last season were Dez Wells and Jake Layman.

“The best thing about Damonte is that he knows who he is,” Turgeon said. “So many big guys want to be who they’re not. Damonte knows he’s a shotblocker and a rebounder, a hustle guy [who’s good setting and defending] ball screens and the things he’s doing will make him a really good player.”

Dodd showed some promise as a freshman, in short bursts. He played well at the end of the first half at North Carolina State but barely played in the second half. Not always the most focused player, Dodd had his best stint against Duke during a second-half comeback at raucous Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Even when Dodd played well, Turgeon would typically go back to either Shaquille Cleare or Charles Mitchell, hoping that Cleare would suddenly have his breakthrough game or Mitchell would be able to knock down free throws in key situations.

With both those players transferring after last season, and 7-1 freshman Trayvon Reed getting dismissed from the team and the university after a July 30 arrest for theft and second-degree assault, it is up to Dodd and 7-foot Slovakian Michal Cekovsky to play a majority of the minutes inside.

Given the hype that followed Cekovsky to College Park – a number of NBA executives believe he will be a two-year college player similar to former Terp Alex Len – most figured he would start as a freshman. He still might, either at center or power forward, but he is getting accumstomed to the speed and physicality of the college game as well as to college itself.

“He’s a monster. He’s 7-foot, he can run, he’s fast, runs like a guard, very athletic,” Turgeon said of Cekovsky, the last player to sign in a top 10 recruiting class. “I don’t want to compare him to Alex, because Alex was special, but we had Alex when he was young. We had Alex when he was 18 and 19. Checko is already 20, which helps us.

"But he’s still learning the language. He’s in class five hours a day. But he’s special.  He’s got a lot to learn. He’s never played with his back to the basket, but for him to make money some day, that’s something we’re working on. He’s just learning. I think he’s going to be great down the road for us.”

Based on what Turgeon said Monday, it appears as if the starting lineup is pretty much set. If the season started Tuesday – and perhaps when the season starts a month from Tuesday – you can also pencil in Wells, Layman and freshman point guard Melo Trimble.

Perhaps the biggest question is whether Evan Smotrycz starts at power forward. Turgeon said that Layman, who is a legit 6-9 and up around 215 pounds, is strong enough to bang inside. It appears that for now, Turgeon seems more comfortable with Smotrycz starting at power forward and Cekovsky coming off the bench.    

There was a lot of criticism directed at Smotrycz toward the end of last season, when he sat out against Florida State in the ACC tournament with a back injury that kept him from even shooting for a month. But Turgeon said the Michigan transfer has “really been focused, got his body right, has been a better leader for us.”

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