Maryland sophomores Justin Jackson, Kevin Huerter and Anthony Cowan all took on key roles during their first year in College Park, Md., last season, and along with the since-departed Melo Trimble, they helped lead the Terps to a third consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance under head coach Mark Turgeon.
With Trimble now playing in the NBA's Developmental League, Jackson, Huerter and Cowan enter the 2017-18 season as the leading men of a program with expectations of contending for a Big Ten title after having won 38 conference games during the past three seasons. They also have ambitions of making it back to the NCAA Tournament and improving on last season's effort that ended in a first-round loss to Xavier. Such a responsibility isn't just about the minutes the trio will likely shoulder this year; it also means playing a role in making the other players on the roster better.
"They help me a lot, especially Kevin," freshman forward Bruno Fernando said. "Kevin is always there to make sure us as freshmen don't make little mistakes that we know can slow us down throughout the season. Kevin makes sure we always do the right things. … Before we even do a play, he'll [talk] with you on the side and just tell you, ‘You should do that, that and that.' That's great by Kevin. And Justin, Justin's always there to talk to you about stuff like how the college game has been for him and changing him -- not just body-wise but also mentally."
While Jackson, Huerter and Cowan embraced new leadership roles during preseason practices, all three took it upon themselves throughout the spring and summer to improve away from College Park, an effort that will aid them as they take on more prominent on-court roles with the Terps.
Jackson, a native of Toronto, Ontario, averaged 10.5 points and six rebounds per contest last season. The 6-foot-7 Jackson played power forward because Maryland's roster -- particularly its lack of depth in the frontcourt -- dictated that the Terps play small. Jackson proved to be a matchup problem for bigger power forwards. His best stretch came in late January, when he scored 28 and 22 points in back-to-back games at Minnesota and at Ohio State.
Jackson intrigued NBA teams because of his 7-foot-3 wingspan, his shooting ability (he shot 43.8 percent from 3-point range last year) and potential defensive versatility. He entered the NBA Draft last spring without hiring an agent, participated in the NBA Draft Combine and worked out for his hometown Toronto Raptors, but he decided to return to College Park for his sophomore season.
The draft process was a learning experience for Jackson.
"You've just got to be aggressive. You can't take any plays off," he said describing lessons learned. "The thing that really helped me the most was how the college game slowed down for me. It's a difference between the NBA and college basketball, so going through that little summer period where I was kind of an NBA player really helped the college game slow down for me."
With Maryland's roster including more big men capable of playing quality minutes, Jackson will play the small forward position this season more than he did last, Turgeon said, though the Terps will still play some small ball and use him at power forward. Without Trimble around, Jackson should get more opportunities to attack the basket and develop a post-up game against small forwards that aren't as big as him.
Jackson can also draw from his experience of testing the NBA waters last spring.
"He was just trying to feel it out and see what it's like on that next level, and I think he's doing a good job of bringing that back here at Maryland," senior forward Jared Nickens, Jackson's friend, said. "His approach to the game is different: he asks more questions, he's more nitpicky on his game, he's always looking for feedback."
Huerter averaged 9.3 points, 4.9 rebounds and 2.7 assists for the Terps last season. The 6-foot-7 Clifton Park, N.Y., native played small forward with Trimble and Cowan typically on the court at the same time. Huerter was the best player for the Terps during their two postseason games, scoring 19 points against both Northwestern and Xavier last March.
Huerter made the U.S. roster for the 19-and-under FIBA World Cup, which took place in Egypt in July. The John Calipari-coached team had the opportunity to celebrate the Fourth of July at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and visit the Egyptian pyramids, said Huerter, whose squad won the bronze medal in the tournament.
"These European teams, they pass the ball so well," Huerter said. "And different guys are already on NBA radar. So it was just a great opportunity to play against different players than the usual 14, 15 that we have around here [and] the people I'm used to playing against back home -- and play for different coaches."
Huerter will move to shooting guard this year while still playing some small forward when the Terps go small. Maryland emphasized getting Huerter open outside shots last season -- 175 of his 264 shots last season were 3-pointers -- and though he shot the three at a 37.1-percent clip, he should have a chance to be more aggressive this season.
"Last year I saw, especially in the Big Ten, a lot of taller wings -- all my size, sometimes a little bit bigger," Huerter said. "So it was tougher, I think, maybe to go to the basket, finish on them, post people up. Hopefully this year playing at the two, there'll be smaller guys guarding me, and so I'll be able to take them to the post, get to the basket, get my shot off a little bit easier, so I think that may change."
Cowan is coming off a season in which he posted 10.3 points, 3.9 rebounds and 3.7 assists. Cowan said one of his priorities this summer was improving his shot through repetition; he shot just 32.1 percent from 3-point range last year. During the offseason, Cowan played in the Kenner League, a Georgetown-based summer league that draws talent from the college and professional ranks.
"It was a lot of fun, just being able to compete against not only players in college but also players overseas and in the league," Cowan said. "That was really big for me, really just to try to test my game against those types of players."
The 6-foot Bowie, Md., native ran the offense for much of last season but would typically defer to Trimble late in games. However, Cowan is now the undisputed point guard. Seventy-one percent of the Terps' ball screens were run for Trimble last season, according to Turgeon, who expects the recipients to be more evenly distributed throughout the roster.
Cowan, as the team's chief ball-handler, figures to be a big beneficiary of that.
"My message to Anthony is, 'Make the right decisions,'" Turgeon said. "So if you're open, you shoot it. If you've got a chance to pass it, read the situation. Because we have a read and react offense in everything that we do, so it's about making the right decisions. If Anthony does that, we're a much better offensive team. I don't want to put that kind of pressure on Anthony that he's filling Melo's shoes, because he's not. We've got a whole group of guys; we've got a nice team."
Issue 239: November 2017