Unlike his Maryland teammates, freshman center Michal Cekovsky had no idea what the NCAA tournament was about until he arrived last year at the Canarias Basketball Academy in the Canary Islands off the coast of Spain.
His coach, Rob Orellana, was a former Division I assistant and told his player all about March Madness as they watched on the Internet. To Cekovsky, a 7-foot Slovakian, it was a look into the future. At the time, he was being recruited by a number of schools, most prominent among them Arizona and Louisville.
“My coach called it ‘the greatest show on the planet,’” Cekovsky, who committed to Maryland in April, said Thursday in the team’s dressing room at Nationwide Arena. “A lot of people were watching the games, everyone was excited. I was like, ‘Wow, how many people care about it?'”
Cekovsky will get his first taste of the NCAA tournament Friday when fourth-seed Maryland (27-6) takes on 13th seed Valparaiso (28-5).
Recovered from a stomach flu that kept him on the bench for most of the Big Ten Conference tournament, the player his teammates and coaches call “Checko” hopes to continue the progress he had seemingly made late in the season, including an impressive 24-minute stint in a 59-53 upset of then-No. 4 Wisconsin at Xfinity Center.
Cekovsky said that he has finally adjusted to the atmosphere surrounding most big games.
“At the beginning it was hard,” he said. “Now I’m getting used to it. I didn’t expect something like that.”
As for his first NCAA tournament game, Cekovsky said, “I’m very excited.”
Even though fellow freshman Jared Nickens grew up watching the NCAA tournament and has memories of VCU’s surprising run to the Final Four in 2011, the 6-7 wing never thought he would get a chance to play in it until his last couple of years of high school, including last season at Westtown School outside Philadelphia.
“It’s just a blessing that I got to be here,” Nickens said. “Growing up, that’s all I watched.”
Nickens said that after a bit of a bit of a late-season shooting slump – he hit 3 of 12 shots in the Big Ten tournament and just four of 19 the last four games – he “put up a lot of shots” after returning to campus and getting in the gym on Monday.
“I’m just trying to get back to helping the team,” said Nickens, who remains second on the team in 3-pointers made (52) behind fellow freshman Melo Trimble (56). “I’m really confident.”
One of the interesting aspects to this year’s Maryland team is that many of the veteran players will be experiencing the NCAA tournament for the first time.
Seniors Richaud Pack and Jon Graham were both redshirting while their former schools, North Carolina State and Penn State, made it. Senior forward Evan Smotrycz played in the tournament twice at Michigan and Dez Wells played in one as a freshman at Xavier.
Smotrycz can provide intereresting perspective, having been on a Wolverines’ team seeded fourth that lost to 13th seed Ohio three seasons ago.
“’I’ve told the guys not to look too much into seeding because everyone’s good at this point,” said Smotrycz, who seemingly revived his season a little in Chicago, where he averaged eight points and four rebounds in 21 minutes a game. “Ohio had a really good team, they had good guards.”
Junior forward Jake Layman said he is no different than his freshmen teammates when it comes to the NCAA tournament.
“I think the excitement is all the same, being here for the first time,” Layman said.
Freshman point guard Melo Trimble is approaching his first NCAA tournament like he approached a good portion of the first 33 in the regular season.
“I’m not really nervous, I’m just ready to play and excited to be out there with the rest of my teammates,” Trimble said.
That is about the way Juan Dixon felt approaching his first NCAA tournament game as a redshirt freshman in 1998-99. Dixon was a reserve guard on a team that featured junior college transfer Steve Francis, as well as seniors Laron Profit and Terrell Stokes.
Dixon doesn’t think he was nervous.
“I probably wasn’t, we had a lot of big games that year,” Dixon said Thursday.
Ironically, it came against Valparaiso.
“That’s crazy,” he said with a smile. “We had a veteran team. We were pretty strong.”
As a No. 2 seed, Maryland won 82-60.