Maryland's 2014 recruiting class included Melo Trimble, Dion Wiley, Jared Nickens and Michal Cekovsky, but only two of those players are seniors four years later.
Trimble left to pursue a professional career after last season, while Wiley is a redshirt junior after losing his sophomore year to injury, leaving Nickens and Cekovsky as the lone seniors from the class.
"Bittersweet feeling. It goes by fast," Nickens said at Terps media day Oct. 31. "Coming in as a freshman, you think, 'Aw, four years is going to take forever.' It feels like yesterday I was still just coming in with Melo and Dion. It's been a fun ride."
Cekovsky, a native of Kosice, Slovakia, added: "I got here when I was a kid. Now, I'm a senior. I'm 23 years old, so I feel like a grown man right now. I'm trying to finish school, do the right thing. I was shy because of the language barrier. I didn't speak any English, so now I feel better, feel more comfortable. I know the system. I know how everything works here, so I'm definitely more comfortable."
Nickens will reprise his role as a shooter off the bench, while Cekovsky will get an opportunity to start at center. The 7-foot-1, 250-pound Cekovsky was one of the most productive players last year-- when he was healthy enough to be on the court. In just 13.2 minutes per game during his 17 games last season, Cekovsky scored 7.6 points per game on 67.1 percent shooting.
Cekovsky suffered four different injuries last season, costing him 16 games. He missed time last preseason with a hamstring issue, then missed the first four games of the regular season with a sprained right foot. He later missed the first six games of the Big Ten season with a left ankle injury, then returned and began to round back into form when he fractured his left ankle at Wisconsin last February.
"Kid's had bad luck," Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon said. "He's been hurt, a lot. He was hurt every day of last year. There was never a day he wasn't hurting."
Cekovsky was out for six to seven months following surgery, but "really started going full speed" about two weeks before practice began in early October, Turgeon said. Cekovsky's foot was "100 percent sound" at the start of practice, according to Turgeon, but Cekovsky didn't have full confidence in it. Turgeon said the first practice he didn't see Cekovsky favoring his left foot was Oct. 30.
"I'm feeling great," Cekovsky said. "My foot is feeling great. I've been practicing from the beginning, didn't miss any practice. I feel comfortable. Everything's doing well right now, so I'm just excited for the season."
Cekovsky was the only Terps big man who could consistently finish around the basket and play above the rim last season. Not only was Cekovsky a reliable big man to dump the ball off to for driving guards, but an alley-oop to Cekovsky was often Maryland's top weapon against zone defenses. The Terps lost four of their final six games of the season with Cekovsky sidelined.
A healthy Cekovsky is a big part of Turgeon's plan to play bigger lineups than he did last season, when 6-foot-7 Justin Jackson played power forward. Turgeon has two above-the-rim finishers now in Cekovsky and Bruno Fernando, who should play together a lot.
"We're playing through our post more this year with Bruno, [Cekovsky], Ivan Bender, and we're going to post Justin at the guard," Turgeon said. "We'll post Kevin [Huerter] some. He's getting a little more confidence down there because we're throwing the ball in there. Last year, we never really threw the ball in there. It's giving him a chance to be more confident."
Nickens, meantime, is set to back up at small forward, as he's done during most of his career at Maryland. He hasn't missed a game to this point, playing in all 104 games and starting 10. Nickens has been a 3-point specialist during his time in College Park, Md. Eighty-one percent of Nickens' field-goal attempts during his first three years were 3-pointers, and he shot 36.3 percent from distance.
Nickens shot 45 percent from 3-point range during conference play last season, albeit on limited shots. It'd be a boon for the Terps if Nickens can build off that; a shooter off the bench can provide a spark for a team in need of instant offense, particularly on the road in Big Ten venues. Nickens' best game last season was at Michigan, when he went 4-for-4 from 3-point range.
Nickens has also taken on the role of leader, Turgeon said. Terps freshman guard Darryl Morsell said Nickens has "kind of taken me under his wing and kind of exposed me to everything I should be expecting," and Nickens said he's helping Jackson learn the small forward position.
"Some people, vocal isn't in their personality. It's not in mine, but I'm just doing it for the greater good of the team," Nickens said. "I'm trying to win a lot of games in my last season here. Just being vocal is a lot of different things: just making sure you're encouraging guys; or if someone messes up, you've got to hold them accountable; or just talking throughout the offense and directing guys to where they need to go.
"It comes with a lot of different things. It even happens off the court. If someone's not having a [good] day, you just want to talk to them, make sure everything's good before practice and get their mind right. Being vocal comes with a lot of different things."
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