When Maryland redshirt sophomore guard Dion Wiley was diagnosed with a torn meniscus in his right knee last November, just before the most anticipated Terps basketball season in years tipped off, sophomore forward Ivan Bender related to the pain of Wiley's injury more than perhaps any other teammate.
Bender, after all, came to Maryland in January 2015 while rehabbing a torn ACL in his left knee, which he tore for the second time in the spring of 2014 after initially tearing it in 2013. Bender was uniquely qualified to provide support for Wiley, who would end up redshirting the 2015-16 season.
"I feel like whenever [Wiley] needed me, I was there for him for any advice or motivational speech, let's say. But he's a strong guy," Bender said Dec. 12. "He was working out with Kyle [Tarp], our strength and conditioning coach, and our trainer, Matt [Charvat]. So he really had support."
Though Wiley didn't play at all last year, Bender didn't play much more. The native of Bosnia and Herzegovina only played in 10 games, averaging 4.3 minutes during those contests, as he continued his adjustment to the Terps' program and also found himself as the odd man out among Maryland's plethora of big men.
Now, both Wiley and Bender are contributors on a Terps team that hopes to make the NCAA tournament for the third consecutive year. As of Jan. 11, Wiley is averaging 4.6 points and shooting 40 percent from 3-point range while coming off the bench for head coach Mark Turgeon. Meanwhile, Bender has started five games, is averaging 4.3 points, and, with 13 assists, has proven to be a deft passer for a big man.
"People understand [if they've] been through that, but regular people, who've never been in the sport of playing basketball or even injured, I feel like they don't understand," Bender said of the difficulty of coming back from a major injury and performing at a high level. "You just have to work out and believe in yourself and believe in your team, and teammates and everybody's going to be there for you and that's more support."
'It Was A Process'
Wiley, an Oxon Hill, Md., native and former star at Potomac High, averaged 4.1 points per game in limited minutes during the 2014-15 campaign, flashing the offensive skillset that made him such a prized recruit for the Terps. Wiley made big improvements the following summer and preseason. Turgeon said Wiley was set to start at shooting guard to begin the 2015-16 season when Maryland announced Wiley's torn meniscus.
Tarp, Maryland's director of basketball performance for seven years, said the meniscus acts as "weight-bearing shock absorbers" for either knee. Tarp said one of Wiley's focuses during rehab was developing basketball and hand-eye coordination skills via seated work while his right knee recuperated.
Tarp also said Wiley worked on his diet while he was rehabbing. Now about 200 pounds, per Tarp, Wiley is about 40 pounds lighter than when the 6-foot-4 guard arrived on campus in 2014. Tarp said Wiley acquired good eating and drinking habits -- starting by drinking just water and flavored water, for example -- and the weight loss created less stress on the meniscus.
Eventually, Wiley got back on the court and was a full go by the time the 2016-17 campaign began. He shot 4-for-5 from 3-point range in a 13-point effort during a win against Stony Brook Nov. 22; 3-for-3 from 3-point land in another 13-point performance in a victory against Jacksonville State Dec. 12 and added nine points during Maryland's win against Illinois to open Big Ten play Dec. 27.
"Just the flow of the game and getting used to it by playing, and the speed of the game, stuff like that," Wiley said of the re-adjustment process. "I think it's coming back to me slowly but surely, but yeah, it was a process."
Though Wiley played just four minutes during Maryland's loss to Nebraska Jan. 1, it was enough time to show the kind of playmaker he could develop into. With the Terps down, 26-19, Wiley nimbly stuck with and then cut off Cornhuskers forward Isaiah Roby as he attempted to drive to the basket, forcing a contested jumper, which Wiley blocked. That led to a fast break and transition 3-pointer on the other end for freshman guard Kevin Huerter.
"It's taking time. He was out a long time and probably is taking longer than any of us wanted it to take, but he's getting more confident," said Turgeon, who pointed out Wiley had the challenge of guarding Illinois standout guard Malcolm Hill. "And he's really giving us another scorer. I think he's a really good passer, too, and he hasn't really been able to show that in the games yet. He shows it in practice, so hopefully that'll be the next step, progression-wise in the games."
'I Love Playing With Him'
The rehabilitation process for Bender was a unique situation for Tarp and the rest of the Terps' program. The 6-foot-9, 235-pound forward tore the ACL in his left knee twice in less than a year while playing overseas and came to College Park, Md., in January 2015. With Bender not playing right away, the player could rehab aggressively, according to Tarp, who helped Bender make some tweaks biomechanically.
The key for Bender, according to Tarp, was developing more stability and strength in his knee to complement his high-end mobility, as well as gaining confidence in his knee. Tarp also explained Bender, after barely playing last year, took off this past summer -- "strength-wise, he made big jumps" -- and has more room to grow.
"I don't think he's totally unleashed the athleticism he does have," Tarp said.
Bender was tabbed by Turgeon before the season as one of the Terps' most improved players, though he endured a scare when he fractured his left wrist during a scrimmage against Wake Forest Oct. 29. The injury, however, didn't require surgery, and Bender appeared in Maryland's opener against American Nov. 11.
Bender has had a pair of 10-point efforts during wins against Jacksonville State and Charlotte Dec. 20 and is averaging 3.6 boards per game. Bender's passing ability is also evident, particularly given how Turgeon likes to play inside-out on offense.
"Coach wants me to play defense, rebound and share the ball with my teammates, and that's what I do best," Bender said. "When I'm playing, I'm not thinking about getting shots or being ... selfish, because everybody's playing for each other, and we don't have problems with that. It's really great for this team."
But Bender's selflessness manifests itself in other aspects, as well.
"He's one of our most unselfish players that we have. I love playing with him," senior forward L.G. Gill said Dec. 30. "Now that I've transitioned to playing [center], he's helping me a lot with the plays -- staying after and before practices, kind of just walking me through things so that I'm familiar with the position. So Ivan's been great."
Issue 229: January 2017