Although Maryland point guard Anthony Cowan Jr. played as well as could have been expected last year, the jump the Bowie, Md., native has made from his freshman year to his sophomore year has been substantial.
The 6-foot, 170-pound Cowan has made improvements in all statistical categories while running Maryland's offense for nearly every minute of Big Ten play and typically guarding the opposing point guard.
Cowan's improvement can be partly traced back to the summer, when he competed in the Kenner League for the second consecutive year. The Kenner League, which draws players from the collegiate and professional ranks, is based out of Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Cowan played for the Darren McClinton All-Stars.
"It's really a testing ground," Cowan's Kenner League coach, Mike Glasby, said, "and some things that maybe your college coach has asked you to work on, it gives you that opportunity to go out there and kind of put it into full motion.
"You're playing under a whistle," Glasby explained, referring to the fact that the competition is structured with referees. "Especially for the college guys, they get an opportunity to get together and play pickup during the summertime and work out with their teammates and work out with alumni, but there's nothing like actually getting under the whistle and playing those meaningful games in a situation like that."
Cowan, according to Glasby, honed in on utilizing his quickness more effectively to keep opposing point guards in front of him on the defensive end; striking the proper balance between looking for his own shot and creating for others, and improving his decision-making in the pick-and-roll game. Cowan said before the season that improving his shot -- he shot 32.1 percent from 3-point range last season -- and becoming stronger were points of emphasis during the summer, as well.
The work Cowan put in came to a head during a Kenner League matchup against the Sam Ballers in July. The Sam Ballers were led by former DeMatha and Duke point guard Quinn Cook, who is under contract with the Golden State Warriors organization.
"I think that one game that I guess stands out to me from the Kenner League," Glasby said, "was when we had a chance to match up with … a guy that I know that Anthony has kind of looked up to from the time that he was a high school student and also when he was playing on the AAU circuit. I think Anthony really took the challenge of playing Quinn and getting the chance to match up with him.
"Anthony was really solid in that matchup. I want to say he had somewhere around in the high 20s, maybe even 30 points in that game, and we ended up pulling that game off. That's just one of the examples of Anthony looking at a matchup, and then also looking at a team that was a little bit older and leading our team statistically as well as just the other intangibles that come with being a good leader out there on the floor."
Several months later, Cowan is averaging team highs in scoring (16.2 points per game) and assists (4.6) for Maryland through 18 games. He's added 4.7 rebounds per game and upped his 3-point shooting percentage to 36.6 percent. He's also played 195 of a possible 205 minutes during the first five games of Big Ten play, proving to be the most indispensable player on head coach Mark Turgeon's roster.
Cowan shared the responsibility of running Maryland's offense with Melo Trimble a year ago, though Trimble was the beneficiary of most ball screens and always ran the offense during crunch time. With Trimble having moved on and no true backup point guard on this season's roster, Cowan runs Turgeon's offense for the entire game outside of a handful of possessions with freshman Darryl Morsell or sophomore Kevin Huerter at point.
"I think it's determination," said Zach Suber, Cowan's AAU coach with DC Assault and later DC Thunder, in explaining why Cowan made a big jump this season. "Everybody always whispers about players that played before him and have left. Will Maryland be in shambles? What are they going to expect out of Anthony? Is he going to be a leader? Can he lead? Because he had such a dominant figure playing with him last year, so everybody was kind of focusing in on that dominant player versus [seeing] what Anthony can actually do. I think that kind of pushed him and just to show everybody his talent, that he can play basketball. He played at a high level all his life."
The Terps depend on Cowan to put pressure on a defense by driving to the hoop, finding big men Bruno Fernando and Michal Cekovsky in pick-and-roll situations, knocking down open jumpers and pestering opposing guards on the other end. Cowan's also become a reliable crunch time scorer, like when he scored nine points during an overtime win at Illinois Dec. 3.
Cowan also showed off his moxie in a losing effort at Michigan State Jan. 4. With the Terps unable to run much offense against the Spartans' swarming defense, Maryland had to lean heavily on Cowan to create his own chances to score points in the second half. Cowan finished with 26 points against then-top ranked Michigan State.
"Honestly, I just think he looks comfortable," said Sean McAloon, Cowan's coach at St. John's College High from 2013-2016. "I know he played a lot last year, but he didn't look like himself, probably. And that's understandable because Melo was there. And so now he just looks more like himself. I don't know that much of a change outside of, he just looks comfortable to me. That's just from me watching. He feels more comfortable; he looks more comfortable. He's doing things that he was doing when he was playing for us in high school."
Cowan's former coaches all described a special work ethic that allows him to get better. McAloon said Cowan has "a mountain-sized chip on his shoulder" and would use free periods his senior year at St. John's to practice his craft in the gym. Suber said Cowan's drive comes in part from competing against future pros such as Dennis Smith Jr. and De'Aaron Fox on the AAU circuit growing up. Glasby said Cowan used this past summer to "show that he could command the team and be the lead guard on the team and help that team be successful with every aspect of the game."
Now, Cowan is indeed helping Maryland be successful in every aspect of the game -- even if it means playing all 40 minutes.
"I'm taking a lot of pride," Cowan said after his team beat Iowa Jan. 7. "Everybody keeps talking about how many minutes I'm playing, but I'll just get a massage tomorrow and stretch a little bit and I'm good. Do a little bit of extra conditioning. I'll be alright. I'm going to give this team everything I have."