Maryland men's basketball center Michal Cekovsky's 2016-17 season ended with a fractured left ankle. So when he injured the heel of that foot Jan. 30 and didn't travel to Purdue the next day, it seemed it had potential to derail the team's season yet again. The Terps lost two of their next three games, largely due to their struggles to match up with opponents' bigs.
But Cekovsky returned to action in Maryland's 73-57 win over Northwestern on Saturday, scoring four points in 15 minutes and giving the Terps a semblance of interior depth that could prove crucial as the season winds down.
The team hopes Cekovsky can continue to ease back into the rotation Tuesday at Nebraska.
"It was huge to give our bigs a break," guard Dion Wiley said. "The more bigs we have, the better we are."
The early-season losses of forwards Justin Jackson (torn labrum) and Ivan Bender (torn meniscus) have left the Terps' frontcourt thin.
Other than Cekovsky and forward Bruno Fernando, who were expected to be key players for coach Mark Turgeon this season, seldom-used center Sean Obi and forward Joshua Tomaic are the only non-guards healthy on the roster.
Those backups have looked capable at times this season, but Boilermakers center Isaac Haas overwhelmed them in a 75-67 loss the day after Cekovsky's injury.
Turgeon bemoaned the timing of Cekovsky going down right before Maryland played two of the best centers in the conference. The Terps handled Wisconsin's Ethan Happ in a 68-63 win but gave up 25 points to Penn State forward Lamar Stevens in their 74-70 loss Wednesday.
So Cekovsky's return against Northwestern was a more-than welcome sight.
"Our guys make up their mind when they want to play and he made up his mind yesterday," Turgeon said. "He practiced a little [Friday], he got to see how his heel reacted."
Cekovsky was healthy enough to play, but he came off the bench and logged his fewest minutes since a foul-ridden Jan. 4 contest at Michigan State.
The Slovakian made a pair of buckets, including an alley-oop from guard Anthony Cowan late in the second half.
"He was a little rusty," Turgeon said, "but it was good to have him back."
Even though the team has said it takes Cekovsky some time to find his rhythm when returning to an injury and is at his best when he's been playing consistently for a while, Turgeon complimented the senior's defense against Northwestern's on-ball screens.
Plus, a half-strength Cekovsky is still a useful piece for Maryland given its dearth of interior options. He rescues the Terps from being a few fouls away from forcing Turgeon to consider playing walk-ons, as he was close to at Purdue.
"We need him," Cowan said.