Going into this season, there was a lot of talk — and some trepidation — among Maryland fans about how sophomore Anthony Cowan Jr. would do in assuming full responsibility of the point guard job after the departure of Melo Trimble.
A little more than midway through the 2017-18 season, Cowan is starting to carve his own legacy. He is also making a case for himself to be considered one of the Big Ten’s best all-around point guards and one of college basketball’s most improved players.
Though he has yet to develop the flair for the dramatic that Trimble often displayed during his three years at Maryland, Cowan is putting up numbers remarkably close to Trimble’s as a Terp, especially from his freshman year in 2014-15.
“While it’s Cowan’s sophomore year and it was Melo’s freshman year, the numbers indicate that the contribution Cowan is making is similar to the contribution Melo made,” longtime college basketball analyst Dan Bonner said.
Like the 6-foot-3 Trimble, Cowan is more of a scoring point guard — leading the team with 15.9 points per game — who despite his size (6-0), shoots a lot of free throws (Big Ten highs of 110 makes and 127 attempys). Cowan is also more of a willing passer (4.6 assists per game this season) than Trimble (3.9 per game in his career). Despite being three inches shorter and 15 pounds lighter, Cowan is a better rebounder (4.6 per game vs. Trimble’s 3.9 career average).
Given the recent spate of injuries and illnesses that threaten to derail Maryland’s run at a fourth straight NCAA tournament appearance, Cowan is as important to the success of this year’s team as Trimble was at any point in his college career.
“The point guard’s always important to your team; especially with what’s going on with our team, he’s become even more important,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said Saturday. “It’s been fun to watch. … It’s been much easier for me to coach him because of his understanding and his commitment to defense.”
Iowa coach Fran McCaffery called Cowan “a handful” to prepare for and defend. After the Terps guard had 15 points, seven assists and no turnovers in last Sunday’s 91-73 win for the Terps, McCaffery added, “It starts with Cowan, he’s so quick.”
Said Cowan, who also harassed Iowa sophomore point guard Jordan Bohannon into a career-high six turnovers, “I’m going to do whatever my team needs me to do. Today, I tried to make sure I got my teammates involved.”
While Turgeon could afford to rest Trimble at times last season because he had Cowan, he has not had that luxury this season to rest Cowan and freshman Darryl Morsell (Mount Saint Joseph), who is still more comfortable playing off the ball.
It has led to Cowan playing 35.5 minutes a game, the most in the Big Ten. He played 43 minutes in an overtime win at Illinois on Dec. 3 and 40 in a win at home over Penn State on Jan. 2. (Fellow sophomore guard Kevin Huerter is nearly as indispensable at 33.2 minutes per game, which ranks fourth in the Big Ten.)
Asked after the Iowa game, when Cowan missed all four field goals he tried in the first half, whether the minutes had begun to wear his team’s smallest player down, Turgeon conceded he had thought about it.
“In the back of your mind, you’re thinking, ‘Is it too much?’ ” Turgeon said. “But I think if we went out and played another 40 minutes [that night], Anthony could play the whole game.”
In truth, Turgeon and the Terps have no choice as they head back on the road Monday to play at Michigan. And there’s no denying that the burden on Cowan has grown since sophomore forward Justin Jackson was sidelined with a season-ending shoulder injury.
While Cowan averaged 23.5 points in the two Big Ten games Jackson played — including a career-high 27 against Illinois, when he scored nine of the team’s 17 points in overtime — opponents can now focus more on Cowan and Huerter than they did before.
It happened in Thursday’s 91-69 loss at Ohio State. After Cowan and Huerter, as well as senior center Michal Cekovsky, helped the Terps take an early seven-point lead, the Buckeyes put more pressure on the guards and took Maryland out of its game plan.
Cowan, who has averaged 15.8 points and 5.1 assists since Jackson was shut down, took some responsibility for the team’s collapse. After hitting two early 3-pointers, as well as assisting on a pair by Huerter, Cowan started forcing shots.
“It’s something I have to get better at, just making sure that I trust everybody,” Cowan said Saturday. “Obviously we don’t have the same core guys — some people are hurt, some people honestly just never played before. I’ve got to trust them and believe they can make plays.”
Cowan has made a particular effort recently to cut down on his turnovers. After averaging more than three through the first 14 games, Cowan has had a total of six over the past five games. He had five assists and no turnovers in 35 minutes against the Buckeyes.
Though the Terps have also been more careful with the ball — they had just seven turnovers against Ohio State and nine against Iowa — Cowan doesn’t believe the lack of turnovers is a result of him playing more cautiously.
“I know I have to do everything I can do to give us a chance to win,” he said. “I’m going to try to do the little things such as cutting down on my turnovers. With the circumstances we’re going through, those things can add up. No turnovers, just taking the best shots for the team.”
Said Turgeon, “Unfortunately, since the injuries and sickness [to Bruno Fernando on Thursday], he’s had to be more aggressive offensively, but he’s still doing a nice job with the turnovers. The other night they were doubling him and he had to give it up some.”
While Trimble became known for his big plays and game-winning shots — capped by a 3-pointer to beat Michigan State in what turned out to be his final home game as a junior — Cowan has displayed his own clutch gene at times this season.
In a 79-65 win over Butler on Nov. 15 — Maryland’s biggest victory to date in terms of its opponent’s RPI — Cowan opened up a close game with three 3-pointers late in the shot clock. He finished with his first career double double of 25 points (12-for-15 on free throws) and 10 rebounds.
“You watch him on film, he’s a really good player, obviously,” Butler coach LaVall Jordan said of Cowan. “He does a really good job of playing with pace. He seeks contact, and he gets to the foul line. Melo Trimble taught him that, because he got to the foul line at a high rate.”
Playing alongside Huerter will likely take some of the pressure off Cowan, especially in late-game situations.
“It’ll be interesting to see in those critical situations if Cowan becomes the one guy they rely on over all others,” Bonner said. “When Dez Wells left, the coaching staff decided in critical situations, it was going to be Trimble. I’m not sure that will happen with Cowan because they have Kevin Huerter as well.”
Not that Cowan lacks the confidence in those situations. As he went to the free-throw line against Illinois with the score tied and less than a second left in overtime after he drew a shooting foul, Cowan looked over at his mother sitting behind the Maryland bench and smiled before knocking down the game-winner.
“I think the big thing is confidence,” Cowan said Saturday. “I’m more experienced. I had a whole year to learn and sit back, so now this year I know I’m kind of ahead of it now. So I was prepared [for the free throw at Illinois].
“Sometimes last year I wasn’t confident in myself. That’s not how I play. I’m best when I’m confident. I worked super hard this summer so I was ready for those type of moments. Thankfully, some of them have been really good for me and I’ve got to keep going.”
Aside from the trajectory of their respective college careers, what is also different in the comparison between Cowan and Trimble is the hype. Trimble came in with a lot as Maryland’s first McDonald’s All-American in more than a decade, and was a first-team All-Big Ten player his freshman year.
It was the now-sidelined Jackson who was selected preseason All-Big Ten in the fall, not Cowan or Huerter. Most of the attention among Big Ten point guards has centered on Minnesota’s Nate Mason, Northwestern’s Bryant McIntosh and Purdue’s Carsen Edwards.
It is similar to when Cowan was in high school, first as a freshman at Good Counsel and then the last three years at St. John’s College High. He was often overshadowed by DeMatha star MarkelleFultz, who after a year at Washington was the No. 1 pick in last year’s NBA draft.
Not that Cowan thinks much about it, with the undermanned Terps trying to stay in the NCAA tournament conversation.
“I’ve got to focus on winning right now,” Cowan said. "All those accolades, they’re going to come in time. I think as long as I’m trying my hardest and leading my team to just getting victories, I think that’s when the recognition is going to start to come. That’s all I’m putting my effort into right now. I can’t really worry about anything I can’t control.”