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Playing more efficiently than ever, Anthony Cowan Jr. is the maestro of No. 4 Maryland’s fast start

Maryland guard Anthony Cowan Jr. shoots against Illinois during the second half Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019, in College Park.
Maryland guard Anthony Cowan Jr. shoots against Illinois during the second half Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019, in College Park. (Julio Cortez/AP)

Going into the season, Maryland men’s basketball coach Mark Turgeon promised that Anthony Cowan Jr. had changed. It was something that Turgeon had said before Cowan’s junior year and maybe before his sophomore year as well.

“He’s a new Anthony,” Turgeon said in what became something of a catchphrase for the 6-foot point guard’s maturation both on and off the court.

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After the first 10 games of Cowan’s final season as a Terp, Turgeon’s once hollow words might finally have some merit.

Going into Tuesday’s game at Penn State, Cowan is in the midst of a stretch that includes some of the best performances of what has already been a fairly accomplished career. Not only have his individual numbers improved, but he has led No. 4 Maryland (10-0, 1-0 Big Ten) to equaling its best start in more than 20 years.

Cowan followed up being the Most Valuable Player in Maryland’s three-game run to the championship of the Orlando Invitational — where he scored a career-high 30 points in the first-round win over Temple — by hitting one of the biggest shots in the 18-year history of Xfinity Center.

While he has hit deep, late shots and has made big plays before, the 30-footer he made to tie the game with 19 seconds left against Illinois on Saturday — and the free throw he made with 2.1 seconds to go after forcing a turnover — in the Terps’ 59-58 victory might have been the most memorable.

“It didn’t seem this far. After just looking at it, it seemed a little farther than I thought it was,” Cowan said Monday, standing a few feet from the signature for Hall of Fame coach Gary Williams where he launched a shot that hit nothing but net.

Asked if he feels a sense of calm that he might not have had on a consistent basis his first three seasons, Cowan said: “Yeah, for sure. I think this year, [I’ve] just been letting things come to me, just get in a good flow. That’s just what I’ve been working on. When a shot is there, shoot it. When a pass is there, make it. Just do whatever my teammates need me to do.”

Echoing the words his college coach and longtime mentor, Larry Brown, Turgeon said Monday that it comes down to the struggle of trying to get those they are teaching to approach the game the same way as they do.

“What I fought with Anthony, I’m fighting with the young guys right now,” Turgeon said after practice. “It’s a constant fight as a coach, but the difference is Anthony just decided that he was going to play the right way and make the right decisions and trust his teammates. If you ask him, the game’s a lot easier now because he’s playing the right way. The game’s slowed down. It’s amazing — if you just make the play you’re supposed to make, the game’s a lot easier.”

Cowan seemed a bit taken aback by the comments made by Turgeon.

“I always thought I played the right way,” he said. “I’ve always got confidence in my teammates. All my teammates I’ve played with here have been great. Just me making the right play.”

But his improved play has been noticeable, particularly among those scrutinizing him the most — NBA scouts.

“I’m seeing a more efficient and disciplined player this year,” one longtime scout, who wished to remain anonymous, said Monday. “How he recognizes good to great opportunities. Making better decisions with the ball. Being a pass-first point guard and only shooting open shots. He’s showing a better feel for the game.

“He knows how, and more importantly, is willing to make others better. Not trying to create for himself unless the shot clock is expiring. Trying to get his teammates more touches. His pick-and-roll playmaking is a noticed improvement. They are looking for him to make the smart play or big shot when things bog down during a game.”

Opposing coaches have basically geared their game plans around stopping Cowan. The most recent was third-year Illinois coach Brad Underwood, who recalled how, as a sophomore two years ago, Cowan lit up the Illini for a then-career high 28 points to help the Terps win in overtime.

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On Saturday, Cowan scored 20 points to go along with seven rebounds and six assists while playing all 40 minutes.

Joining Notre Dame’s Mike Brey (“He is such a winner, he’s an assassin”) and Marquette’s Steve Wojciechowski (“Cowan gets the ball down the court faster than anyone we’ve seen”), Underwood said Saturday: “Anthony is one of the elite guards in the country. He’s playing so much better. And then he’s one of the elite defenders. When he wants to guard, he’s as good as anybody in the country on that end of the court.

“He‘s playing as well as anybody in the country, and anybody in this league. And again, it’s a tribute to who he is. That’s what a senior does. A senior steps up and makes big shots. He makes big plays and Mark’s got to be really proud of that young man.”

It’s not only noticeable through Cowan’s across-the-board improvement statistically — from career-highs in scoring average (a team-high 16.6 points per game), 3-point shooting (38.8%), field-goal percentage (.447) and assist-to-turnover ratio (4.4) — but it has helped the Terps get, according to the scout, “gritty wins” over Illinois, as well as Harvard and Temple in Orlando.

“When we’re kind of down, or haven’t scored as much as we need to, I kind of take it upon myself, not only to get myself a shot but get somebody open,” Cowan said. “Try to get an easy bucket. That’s what a point guard’s supposed to do.”

It has been this way for Cowan since summer workouts began, when teammates noticed the normally introverted Cowan was talking more and acting more like a leader than he ever did since being thrust into that role two years ago with fellow sophomore Kevin Huerter after the departure of Melo Trimble.

“He’s just so poised,” junior guard Darryl Morsell said Monday. “He’s just like team-first. He knows the importance of winning. It’s his last go-around. He’s trying to leave a legacy. His poise is just crazy, from when I came in to now. There’s been a couple of games when he went into the second half scoreless. Before, Anthony would have been everywhere — lost, people would have had to pick him up. You don’t get say nothing to him now. He knows when to go searching for his [shots] and when to create plays [for others]. His poise and maturity is something we need.”

Said Cowan: “I’ve definitely seen a lot and definitely had a lot of plays that I’ve seen throughout the years, so it definitely has slowed down. I think at this point, I’m just having fun with it, understanding it’s my last year and I just want to cherish these couple of moments playing in a Maryland jersey.”

Cowan will have a big moment off the court — fittingly on the same Xfnity Center floor — a week from Tuesday. It will be when Cowan, who graduated last summer in three years and is now in graduate school, receives his diploma.

Asked if he is more excited at the prospect of playing at Penn State — where he and the Terps have struggled the past couple of seasons — or walking in the processional next week, Cowan smiled.

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“I’m excited for both,” he said.

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