CHICAGO — Maryland point guard Anthony Cowan Jr. wants to go backward in hopes of pushing his team forward this season — at least past the first weekend of the NCAA tournament, and perhaps all the way to the Final Four.
To do that, Cowan wants to channel, at least emotionally, the player he was when he was a freshman. The Terps weren’t Cowan’s team then. As he enters the 2019-20 season as the lone senior in the starting lineup and the unquestioned leader, they clearly are now.
“It was a lot more laid-back. Everybody was just playing their roles, we was hoopin’, we looked really good,” Cowan recalled Wednesday at Big Ten media day of that 2016-17 season, when he was one of three freshman starters, along with Kevin Huerter and Justin Jackson, supporting star junior Melo Trimble. “We [were] excited to play with each other. I had a lot of fun that year. I’m ready to get back to that.”
Though that team ran out of steam after a school-record 20-2 start to finish 24-9 following a first-round loss to Xavier in the NCAA tournament — in part because Cowan wore down and then-junior center Michal Cekovsky got hurt — it still remains the most fun Cowan said he has had in his career.
“I think that younger Anthony wasn’t thinking so much; he was just playing,” Cowan said. “I need to get back to that. ... Like I said, I’ve got a lot more to give to Maryland. I’m excited for that.”
The spotlight won’t be entirely focused on Cowan during his senior year. Sophomore forward Jalen Smith (Mount Saint Joseph) joined him on the preseason All-Big Ten team, and the Terps, predicted by most to start the season ranked in the top 10 nationally, were picked in the Big Ten media poll to finish second behind Michigan State.
Coach Mark Turgeon, entering his ninth season at Maryland, said Wednesday that he saw a different Cowan during summer and preseason practices. A lot of that change has to do with the team Cowan is expected to lead, the deepest and potentially most talented of Turgeon’s tenure.
“I think he trusts it more. I think he sees that [talent],” Turgeon said Wednesday. “Anthony’s freshman year, we were really young. Anthony’s junior year, we were really young. And his sophomore year, we just weren’t very good. So he knows what he has around him.”
Turgeon, too, thinks he can coach Cowan differently.
“I think I’m in position if Anthony isn’t doing what he’s supposed to be doing, I can pull him out now. A lot of times, I couldn’t do that the past few years,” Turgeon said. “I’m in a little bit more powerful position than I’ve been in because of the depth, which helps me. But he’s really worked at it.
“Whether he does it when the lights are on, every game, when things aren’t going well, and just continues to trust his teammates? We’ll see, but I hope it gets to that point. He thought his sophomore year he had to do more than he had to, and last year he thought he had to do more than he was supposed to do.”
Cowan started his junior year well, and the Terps followed en route to a 16-3 start that included winning seven of their first eight league games. But Maryland and Cowan struggled toward the end of the season again. The Terps lost three of their last four before the NCAA tournament and were eliminated by Nebraska in the second round of the Big Ten tournament.
Though Cowan’s scoring average last season was nearly identical to that of his sophomore year — 15.6 points per game compared with 15.8 — his assists average went down (5.1 to 4.4), as did his rebounding (4.4 to 3.7) and steals (1.5 to 0.9), and he failed to limit his turnovers (2.8 per game). He took a career-high 208 3-pointers, 61 more than the previous season, and attempted a career-low 155 free throws, one fewer than he did as a freshman.
After hitting just seven of 29 shots, including four of 16 from 3-point range, in the NCAA tournament, Cowan finished the season shooting 33.7% on 3-pointers and a career-low 39.3% from the field. A player who lived at the foul line during his first three years didn’t attempt a single free throw in the 69-67 season-ending loss to LSU.
“I think he felt the pressure last year, because we were good and every game mattered,” Turgeon said. “He looked around and [thought], ‘Everybody is younger than I am.’ I think he’ll be more relaxed. We work on it all the time. He had one live-ball turnover in practice, a layup, but it was one in two days. I’ll take that. He’s got to find guys at the right time.”
Big Ten analyst Stephen Bardo has seen both sides of Cowan.
“I think he gets premeditated when he’s thinking too much and he’s forcing the issue,” Bardo said Wednesday. “I think that’s when he gets in trouble. When he’s able to play and let his athleticism [take over], with change of pace, and let the game come to him, I think he’s extremely dangerous.
“I think sometimes he’s trying to put too much on his shoulders. When he trusts his teammates and plays within himself, he’s tough.”
Minnesota coach Richard Pitino has seen Cowan at his best the past two seasons.
In Maryland’s only meeting with the Gophers in 2017-18, Cowan barely looked to score until the final minutes, collecting 10 assists, then went on a late scoring binge to finish with 15 points in a 77-66 win. Last season, Cowan averaged 24 points and five assists in two wins over Minnesota, tying his career-high with 27 points, including 23 in the second half, in an 82-67 road victory. Cowan hit 10 of 10 from the free-throw line in that game.
“He’s always really, really good at getting in the lane, drawing fouls,” Pitino said Wednesday. “You’ve got to adjust because he gets into your body. He forces you to make a play so you’ve got to defend the right way. Very, very quick, obviously.
“In my opinion, he’s one of the more undervalued players in our league, one of the least talked-about guys.”
Cowan has received his share of recognition from the Big Ten — all-league second team last years and third team the previous season, as well as an All-Big Ten defensive team nod as a sophomore. He has also started to get national attention with the preseason hype this Maryland team has generated. But he was snubbed by the NBA last spring, not getting an invitation to the league’s scouting combine or even to the G League Elite Camp in Chicago.
Over the summer, Cowan acknowledged he thought too much last season about what the NBA scouts were thinking about him as they watched him play.
His mindset has seemingly changed as his senior year fast approaches.
“I have no pressure at all,” he said. “A lot of times, it’s a lot of ‘hoo-rah,’ it’s a lot of talk, but at the end of the day, you’ve got to back it up. I just want make sure I lock in. Overall I just want to make sure I enjoy my senior year. I just want to have fun. That’s the biggest key right now.”
At a recent pickup game among the Maryland players before practice began, Cowan seemed more animated — and more demonstrative — than before. Quiet by nature, Cowan talked light-hearted trash after his team nearly went unbeaten until a 3-pointer by sophomore forward Ricky Lindo Jr. ended the afternoon reign.
His teammates have noticed.
“Every year I’ve been with Anthony, I feel he’s grown as an individual,” junior guard Darryl Morsell (Mount Saint Joseph) said Wednesday at media day. “He’s talking more. I think he’s kind of realizing this is his last go-round. He’s trying to make the best of it. I feel that him bringing that mindset to the table has helped everybody.
“He‘s like a coach on the floor. He’s focused on helping us improve so we can have success, and everybody, including the freshmen, is taking it all in.”
Asked Wednesday what has changed, Cowan smiled.
“I’m realizing this is my last year, so I’ve got to make the best of it,” he said. “I want to try to build the best relationship I can with these guys. At the end of the day, I’m trying to help them just like they’re trying to help me.
“We have one common goal, so literally anything I’ve got to do to win. That’s what I’m going to try to do.”