COLLEGE PARK — Anthony Cowan Jr. is starting to feel old.
Just three summers ago, he was an 18-year-old freshman taking college classes while preparing for his first basketball season at Maryland. Along with Kevin Huerter and Justin Jackson, he was about to join Melo Trimble as the core of a team that would get off to a school-record 20-2 start before fading to 24-9 and exiting with a first-round loss to Xavier in the NCAA tournament.
Now 21 and the lone senior in the team’s starting lineup, or even in the regular rotation, Cowan will become the only other prominent Terp to finish a four-year career under Maryland coach Mark Turgeon besides Jake Layman, who was in Turgeon’s first full recruiting class in 2012. In the past three years, the 6-foot, 170-pound guard has seen several players leave to turn pro, most recently Bruno Fernando.
“It’s crazy. I was just talking about that with my parents,” Cowan said after a recent practice. “I was looking at all the freshmen doing the workouts, and they were struggling, and I was just there a couple of years ago. Our sophomore year, we weren’t supposed to make the tournament and now we’re coming in preseason top 5. It all can change so fast.”
Asked if he has recovered emotionally from the heartbreaking, last-second defeat to LSU in the 2019 NCAA tournament in Jacksonville, Fla., Cowan said: “I think that’s something I’m trying to put behind me. I think the biggest thing for me and also my teammates is that we just got our foot in the door. Now it’s on us to crack it open.”
Cowan is hoping to help the Terps live up to their highest preseason ranking since he came to College Park. As he and his teammates wear T-shirts emblazoned with the words “NEXT STEP” to help push them through summer workouts, Cowan is still being chased by the doubters who didn’t think he was good enough to play in the Big Ten and is too small for the NBA.
Despite being recognized as one of the top players in the league the past two seasons, earning second-team All-Big Ten honors as a junior after being named third-team all-league and all-league defensive team as a sophomore, Cowan was not invited to the NBA draft combine in Chicago or the G League Winter Showcase that preceded it.
Only two NBA teams, the Oklahoma City Thunder and Sacramento Kings, worked him out privately after he declared for the 2019 NBA draft.
“There’s a lot of good players that unfortunately don’t get the opportunity [to play in the NBA],” Cowan said. “Just some in my workouts that I went against that are pretty good. I thought they would make it to the NBA [through the draft]. It also made me realize that it’s wide-open, and it showed me that I can compete with anybody and that I can play at that level ultimately one day.”
Turgeon was totally supportive of Cowan testing the waters this summer, with the full expectation that he would return for his senior year.
“Just getting out, getting away from the college game, I think it was healthy for him,” Turgeon said. “I think it motivated him. I think he was really happy throughout the process, because there wasn’t any pressure on him. He knew he was coming back. Anthony’s just got to make guys around him better, that’s the key. College, he’s going to score a little bit more, but if he’s going to play at that level, he’s got to be more of a facilitator.”
It’s something Trimble, who is now playing professionally in Australia, struggled to do during his own college career, especially after Turgeon moved him away from being a full-time point guard when Cowan arrived.
It’s something Cowan has not always done well, either.
Two years ago, it had more to do with the lack of proven talent surrounding Cowan and Huerter. Last year, it was the matter of completely trusting the large number of freshmen who wound up playing prominent roles, in particular forward Jalen Smith (Mount Saint Joseph), fellow point guard Eric Ayala and wing Aaron Wiggins.
“I think it’s just natural for me,” Cowan said of becoming as much a facilitator as he is a scorer. “I think I start messing up when I start really thinking about what I need to prove in front of scouts. When I just play my game, that’s when it all comes to full fruition. I really get to showcase the things I can do on the court.”
This season, there will be another big group of freshmen, including three who might be in the rotation. Maryland’s 2019 recruiting class is ranked No. 27 in the nation and third in the Big Ten, according to 247 Sports.
“I think if you go down the line of all those players that are going to get to play, I think all those players can have a big impact for any team they went to,” Cowan said. “I think with everybody coming in here [this season], I think it’s going to make us more dynamic being able to have some new different weapons.”
Said Turgeon: “We can possibly have five scorers on the floor [at one time]. It’s going to take pressure off [Cowan]. He knows, for us to be great, he talks about unfinished business, he’s got to make guys around him better.”
Ayala has seen a difference in Cowan from last summer — and even last season. It is not just on the court.
“Anthony is definitely stepping up as a leader, in terms of being more vocal,” Ayala said. "Just seeing him develop since I first got here. Now he accepts everybody with open arms. Yesterday, when the coaches weren’t here, he came in high-fiving everybody, smiling in the locker room. Just for our freshmen to see one of our leaders to embrace everybody is very important.”
At the recent players-only workout, Ayala saw that more than ever before.
“It was the best version I’ve seen of Anthony as a person,” Ayala said. “Maryland is our home, making that our happy place, somewhere we can be safe and comfortable. Anthony has done a great job with that, building his own relationship with everybody where they feel wanted and needed and important to the program.”
After starting all 99 games Maryland has played since he arrived and leading the team in scoring the past two seasons, Cowan understands that he will have to change his game for the Terps to advance to at least the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2015-16 (and only the second time since 2002-03). A lot depends on the improvements Cowan makes.
Cowan, who was recently ranked the No. 9 player in the country — second only to Michigan State’s Cassius Winston in the Big Ten — by longtime college basketball analyst Andy Katz on NCAA.com, thinks more of the collective goal, not just a personal one.
“I think the next step, honestly, is just hanging a banner,” Cowan said, referring to both the Big Ten and the NCAA tournament. “When you’re in your last year, that’s ultimately the thing that you want to [do] to be looked at as a winner. Something my dad always told me that stuck with me is that point guards are always looked at [by] how much they win.
“If I want to be known as one of the best guards to play here, I got to win.”
For Cowan to take that next step — as a player NBA scouts will take a more serious look at next spring — he knows that he has to improve several facets of his game, primarily his 3-point shooting and decision-making. In three seasons, Cowan has made 34.4% (150 of 436) of his 3-pointers and has an assist-to-turnover ratio of only 1.68-1 (437 to 259).
“Everything [needs to improve],” he said. “Obviously you can say the shooting, you can say the decision-making is always a big thing that every player should try to get better at every year. I think at this point, you can talk about all the things you need to get good at personally, but I think in my position you’ve got to just look at what’s the best way to leave your legacy here and leave with a banner in the gym.”