Maryland point guard Anthony Cowan Jr. talks about trying to win a championship.
COLLEGE PARK — Their lives have been intertwined for most of the past seven years, starting when Mark Turgeon began recruiting Anthony Cowan Jr. as a freshman at Good Counsel and later at St. John’s High. They’ve spent the past three seasons together as the men’s basketball coach and starting point guard at Maryland.
As the 2019-20 season begins Tuesday night for the seventh-ranked Terps against Holy Cross, the 54-year-old coach and the 22-year-old player will be hoping to have something else to share in the coming months — a legacy built around some sort of championship banner hanging from the ceiling at Xfinity Center.
Turgeon has specifically used the word “legacy” when talking about the second prominent Maryland player he’ll coach for four years — Jake Layman was the first — and the only one in his tenure to start every game his first three seasons. Cowan will make his 100th straight start in the season opener.
“That’s pretty cool. When I signed Anthony, I didn’t think he would start [as a freshman]. I thought Melo [Trimble] would start at the point and Dion [Wiley] or whoever it was would start at the 2, but he forced me to start him from Day 1,” Turgeon said Monday after practice. “He’s earned it.”
Turgeon understands that it will be an important year in terms of Cowan’s legacy at Maryland, and possibly his own.
“You want to be remembered as a winner,” Turgeon said recently. ”My legacy at Kansas is remembered as a Final Four player [in 1986], won a couple of [conference] championships. That’s what I’m remembered by. I wasn’t a great player, but I played on great teams and I played for a great coach [Larry Brown]. That helped me.”
Cowan said Monday that he recalled what his father, Anthony Cowan Sr., first told him when he was excited about scoring a bunch of points in one of his first recreation league games when he was around 7 years old.
“At the end of the day, I haven’t won anything and that’s what people are remembered by,” Cowan said after practice. “My dad was like, ‘Point guards aren’t remembered by how many points they scored, they’re remembered by how they win.’ I was so excited, and that brought me down to earth really quick.”
Ending the drought
It has been 14 seasons since Turgeon’s Wichita State team won the Missouri Valley Conference regular-season title, the only time in his 21 years as a Division I coach that one of his teams has accomplished that feat. It has been more than three years since Cowan’s team at St. John’s beat favored DeMatha Catholic for the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference title.
This year’s Maryland team, featuring Cowan and sophomore forward Jalen Smith (Mount Saint Joseph) as its two All-Big Ten preseason selections and Naismith Award preseason watch list nominees, is the best the 6-foot, 180-pound point guard from Bowie has ever played on.
It could also be the best Turgeon has ever coached.
“I’m real excited about this group,” Turgeon said, sitting courtside after a recent practice. “It’s good now, they’re pretty coachable, they can get better. I really feel like if we stay healthy and guys stay coachable and stay selfless, we can just get better and better.”
Asked if the expectations from the high national ranking ratchet up the internal pressure he feels, Turgeon goes back to what happened in 2015-16. That was the year the Terps went into the season ranked No. 3 and, despite finishing 27-9 and reaching the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2003, many fans were left deflated and questioning Turgeon’s coaching acumen.
“That year, I wouldn’t say [as the season was going on] that I felt pressure, but you felt it,” Turgeon said. “This year, I don’t feel anything except coaching my guys, I really don’t. I don’t think they [his players] do either. Everything’s internal. We have really high expectations for ourselves.”
Ann Turgeon, who calls her husband “probably the most competitive person I’ve ever met,” said that she doesn’t think he is looking at this season any differently than the previous eight at Maryland because of the expectations heading into the opening game.
“I don’t think ranking is something that he thinks about,” Ann Turgeon said during halftime of Friday’s exhibition win over Fayetteville State. “He thinks about how the team gets along, the camaraderie, that’s what he comes home and talks about. Maybe we do live in a bubble, and I’m thankful for that.
“He’s always been one from the earliest days on, he’s never too high or never too low, because if you are, that dictates success. That’s the really neat thing being 54, almost 55 years old. You really just appreciate your team and the relationships. Not only with his team, but with our kids.”
Longtime college basketball analyst Jay Bilas, who as a senior played against Turgeon’s Kansas team on Duke’s first trip to the Final Four under now legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski in 1986, understands the significance of this season for both Turgeon and the Terps.
“It’s really important, but at the same time, it’s not important right now,” Bilas said in a telephone interview last week. “That’s sort of their destination, you don’t know what their ceiling is. It’s high, they’re as capable as anybody … If you stay healthy and you’re improving in the latter part of the season, you’ve got a real chance.
“What you don’t want to do is start loading up that bandwagon for the Final Four right now because you can’t get there right now. … At the end of the day, you can win 30-plus games and if you don’t get out of the first weekend, everybody thinks you’ve failed. That’s not fair, it’s not right, but that’s the way it is."
And that is a growing perception among Maryland fans with their coach, who has four seasons remaining on a contract that pays him more than $2.5 million a year to make him the highest paid employee in the state.
The Terps have been the NCAA tournament four times in the past five years, but have made it to the Sweet 16 just once, in 2015-16, losing to Turgeon’s alma mater. The 79-77 win over Belmont in the opening-round last season was the first postseason win for Turgeon since Maryland beat No. 13 seed Hawaii in the second round of the 2016 NCAA tournament.
Satisfying the fans
Ann Turgeon said that she’s aware of the frustration among fans about the team’s lack of postseason success, but neither she nor her husband has heard it first-hand.
“No one comes and stops you at the Safeway and questions why you haven’t made it to the Final Four,” she said. “He really does live in that bubble because no one is going to start questioning anything about it. But I do know how much sleep he loses. Anyone who wants to critique him, he critiques himself far worse.”
Asked how long it took for Turgeon to put the last-second 69-67 loss to LSU in the second round of the NCAA tournament behind him, his wife said: “I don’t think he’s over it. I don’t think the team is over it. That’s all in the back of their mind.”
Cowan believes that the win over Belmont — a game in which he shot 3-for-18, including 1-for-10 on 3-pointers, but finished with six assists and just one turnover in a team-high 37 minutes — was important for the Terps as a team, as well as for himself.
“It definitely prepared us,” Cowan said on media day. “It definitely gave everybody a taste of what the postseason was like. Gave me a taste. I hadn’t won a postseason game. That was the first postseason game I won, so to get one of those under my belt, I think that was big time.”
Turgeon and Cowan have had their share of successes together, including the school-record 20-2 start when Cowan was one of three freshmen playing supporting roles next to star guard Melo Trimble in 2016-17. They have an overall record of 66-33 together, including 33-23 in the Big Ten.
But there have also been failures, from the first-round exit against Xavier in the 2017 NCAA tournament to equally quick departures in the past three Big Ten tournaments, the most recent to Nebraska in Chicago last March.
Both want to change the narratives: Turgeon as a coach who piles up regular-season wins but whose teams don’t improve much and fade toward the end; and Cowan as a point guard who scores in bunches but doesn’t make the players around him better.
“I wouldn’t say I don’t think about my legacy here, that it’s not important to me. It is,” Turgeon said. “I don’t want to be remembered as a guy that didn’t do very well. I want to be remembered as a guy that did really well. My legacy to me is more about what kind of person I am. Yeah, I’m going to be judged by Maryland fans in the end on wins and losses.
“I hope they know I was a great guy. I want to be remembered as a great husband, a great dad, a great role model, a great brother, a great son, a great grandfather hopefully someday more so than I want to be remembered as a coach. I mean that. I think I do a really good job of separating the two, not cheating this program at all, but not cheating my family.”
Ann Turgeon said that that is not totally true.
“If that’s really all he’s worried about, he wouldn’t be coaching,” Ann Turgeon said. “I think he lives that every day. That’s why you get into coaching. You want to have success, and you want to succeed at the highest level. I do think day to day, he lives his life ... being a good human, a humble person. But I think he’s strongly motivated to be a successful basketball coach too.”
Currently ranked 23rd all-time in scoring with 1,376 points and tied for 10th in assists with Johnny Rhodes with 437, Cowan, who was selected second-team All-Big Ten as a junior as well as third-team and All-Defensive team as a sophomore, looks beyond what has happened on the court to encapsulate his time at Maryland.
Asked how he would like to be remembered, Cowan said: “Just a good all-around person, somebody that can just always come back and always have that connection with somebody. Like I can just come back at any time and it can still just be genuine.”
Anthony Cowan Sr. said that the older of his two children wants to finish his Maryland career the way he came in after leading his high school team to the prestigious WCAC title. It might take being more of a facilitator than a scorer for the first time since his freshman year.
“For the most part, he’s always won, and he’s always won at the end of seasons,” Cowan Sr. said Sunday. “To be honest, two years prior to last year was all new to him. Whatever it takes to win, you’re going to get whatever you need to get out of him in terms of him accepting his role.”
Cowan, who earned his undergraduate degree in three years and is now in graduate school, remembers coming to Xfinity Center as a high school player and Maryland commit to shoot around at night, looking up at the banners that hang over the court, specifically for the back-to-back Final Fours in 2001 and 2002, as well as for the national championship in 2002.
“Banners live here forever,” Cowan said Monday. “That’s the most important thing and that’s why I’m going so hard to help my team get one.”