After the Maryland men's basketball team's 68-63 victory against Wisconsin Feb. 4, head coach Mark Turgeon said the Terps' 17-2 run to end the first half "was really, in the end, the difference in the game."
Though he scored just three of Maryland's 17 points during the stretch, senior center Sean Obi was a significant factor, pulling down four rebounds, three of which led to baskets by the Terps on the other end -- including a 3-point play by Obi himself. Obi also matched up one-on-one with Wisconsin junior center Ethan Happ on the low block, forcing the polished scorer into tough looks.
Obi averaged 11.4 points and 9.3 rebounds in 30 games as a freshman at Rice during the 2013-14 season. Obi has since played at Duke and Maryland; he struggled with injuries in Durham, N.C., and has played just 6.2 minutes per contest in 17 games in College Park, Md., this year. Obi was asked Feb. 6 if the stretch during the first half against Wisconsin was a window into how he performed at Rice.
"Oh, absolutely, absolutely, absolutely," Obi said. "That was kind of who I am. It gave me good memories of my freshman days."
Obi's performance was necessary considering the Terps' lack of depth at center against Wisconsin with senior center Michal Cekovsky out. Freshman forward Bruno Fernando and Obi were the only true centers available to Turgeon, with redshirt freshman forward Joshua Tomaic more of a power forward at this stage of his development.
Obi's best work came on the defensive end. Turgeon said after the game that Happ was burning Maryland whenever it tried to double team him, so he eventually had the 6-foot-9, 250-pound Obi try his hand against Happ one-on-one. It worked during the Terps' 17-2 run.
"Happ is a really good player, tremendous footwork," Obi said. "Those are the things I brought with me from Duke. That is what Coach [Mike Krzyzewski] instills in you as a player. As a team, we take pride in defense, take pride in taking charges and diving for loose balls. Those are winning plays. Offense is going to be there, but defense absolutely wins championships."
The Terps will face another talented center in Penn State sophomore Mike Watkins Feb. 7. Watkins, who is averaging 13.1 points and 9.9 rebounds per game, had 17 points and 17 rebounds at Maryland Jan. 2. Obi didn't play in that game, but he'll almost certainly get a chance against Watkins this time around; Turgeon said the Terps "most likely" won't have Cekovsky available for the game.
Maryland will face more productive centers this month, like Northwestern's Dererk Pardon (11.7 points, 7.0 rebounds), Nebraska's Isaiah Roby (7.3, 5.4) and Michigan's Moritz Wagner (14.1, 7.1). But Watkins is up first.
"He's a good player. I think he's got a chance to play at the next level," Turgeon said of Watkins. "I don't know what else we could do. I think a lot of his [points] were second-chance points on the break, different things like that. I do think we've gotten a little bit better at post defense. … Hopefully, we can have good team defense against him, but he has good players around him."
Injuries have also forced Turgeon away from his top three options in guarding Big Ten power forwards. Sophomore Justin Jackson, at 6-foot-7 and 225 pounds with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, was the ideal player to guard the four before he was shut down with a torn labrum in December. The Terps then lost junior forward Ivan Bender, Jackson's backup, to a torn meniscus shortly after Jackson was shut down.
After Bender's injury, Turgeon opted to have the athletic 7-foot-1, 250-pound Cekovsky guard power forwards, figuring his athleticism and length would allow him to defend on the perimeter. However, the past three games -- one with Cekovsky active, the other two without -- Turgeon has started freshman Darryl Morsell (Mount St. Joseph) at the four. That, at times, left the 6-foot-4, 205-pound Morsell to defend 6-foot-11 Jaren Jackson Jr. of Michigan State, 6-foot-8 Vincent Edwards of Purdue and 6-foot-10 Nate Reuvers of Wisconsin.
"Darryl really kind of embraces that," sophomore Kevin Huerter said. "In his own head, he loves playing against the four or five guy. He almost finds humor in him trying to battle a guy on the block and guarding Jaren Jackson out on the wing. But then again, he'll go and guard Nate Mason from Minnesota as a point guard. I think he likes being able to guard everywhere, and obviously that makes it a lot easier on everyone else."
Cekovsky's health will help determine how often Morsell has to guard bigger opponents the rest of the season, but Morsell may well get the assignment of guarding Penn State's 6-foot-8 power forward Lamar Stevens Feb. 7, at least to start the game. Stevens, who is averaging 15.3 points and 6.3 rebounds per game, had 15 points at Maryland Jan. 2.
"[Stevens is] kind of almost in the same role as what Justin would've been. He's kind of a three playing the four," Huerter said. "He's big, physical; he's strong; he's athletic. So he's a little bit different than other people in our league, just because it seems like he is almost playing out of position, too, but it's the best position for his own team on Penn State. We don't know what our matchups are going to be yet, but I'm sure if Darryl's matched up on him, he's going to have fun with it."