JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Anthony Cowan Jr. remembers being in high school, sneaking a look at NCAA tournament games on his phone or iPad. He would get in trouble but kept watching through every class, unaware of the day’s lesson.
“It's March Madness,” he said, “so you get a little break.”
After graduating from St. John’s in the District, Cowan arrived at Maryland, made the starting lineup as a freshman and finally got to take part in the event he and his teammates grew up watching. In 2017, Cowan was excited simply to be at the tournament as his team faced Xavier in the first round. Two years later, when Cowan looks back on that game, he sighs.
He remembers Xavier switching to a zone defense that Maryland couldn’t figure out. He remembers the feeling in the locker room after the 76-65 loss, answering questions when he just didn’t want to be there anymore. And then Cowan remembers sitting in that arena in Orlando and thinking, “The next time I get here I was going to try to leave my mark.”
Since that day, Cowan has played in 64 games, started every one and scored more than 1,000 points. But until this week, he hadn’t returned to the NCAA tournament. Against No. 11 seed Belmont on Thursday afternoon, Cowan and his team get a chance to grab a postseason win for the first time since 2016, ending a losing streak in the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments that fuels criticism of the program and Coach Mark Turgeon.
Cowan takes the postseason woes personally. He thinks about all the great March Madness moments and how his only experience in the tournament is the loss. That “gets a little bit more fire under me,” Cowan said. He doesn’t shy away from acknowledging how he hasn’t won a tournament game. He knows. Everybody knows.
|NCAA first round||Belmont||—|
|Big Ten second round||Nebraska||L, 69-61|
|Big Ten second round||Wisconsin||L, 59-54|
|NCAA first round||Xavier||L, 76-65|
|Big Ten quarterfinals||Northwestern||L, 72-64|
“It is what it is,” Turgeon said. “Unfortunately, it gets pointed out. It’s today’s world. It’s only been two seasons. We’ve still got this season to go. You hate that you didn’t take care of that in Chicago [during the Big Ten tournament] to get everybody to quit talking about it, but we didn’t. So hopefully we’ll do it Thursday.”
Only the two seniors on the roster, former walk-on Andrew Terrell and forward Ivan Bender, were part of the Sweet 16 team in 2016, but neither had considerable roles on the court then or now. Cowan is the only member of this year’s eight-man rotation who has played in an NCAA tournament game, the loss against Xavier.
Last year during Cowan’s sophomore season, Maryland missed the NCAA tournament after a 19-win campaign. Cowan didn’t watch the games, but he saw students tuned in on their phones during class, just as he did in high school.
“I just went back to taking notes,” Cowan said. “I couldn't watch. It's terrible.”
On Selection Sunday, when Maryland earned a No. 6 seed, Turgeon said the team’s approach has been to start a new season as it enters this tournament. And if the Terps really have figured out how to turn into a different version of themselves — or at least leave behind what they showed last week in Chicago — they will be far better positioned to beat Belmont or maybe even make a bit of a run.
In the Big Ten tournament, Maryland lost its first game to Nebraska, the No. 13 seed and a team that finished the regular season with six conference wins and only six scholarship players available. Freshman Eric Ayala said he felt the weight of the loss through the entire flight home and into the next morning. Then came the task of regrouping for the NCAA tournament, focusing on finding positive energy even though this team has lost three of its past four games.
Aaron Wiggins, a freshman guard, said the Nebraska loss showed the Maryland players not to “look at team and judge them based off a number of players or the size or the athleticism or the skill of the player.” That mind-set and the recent example of what happens if you look past a team could help Maryland this week.
Programs are defined by what they do in March. At Maryland, Turgeon has recorded an 8-11 record in the postseason. If Maryland loses, whether that’s on Thursday or later, the season will be over, and the assessment of this team probably will hinge on its performance here.
Cowan is just ready to play. He has talked about and thought about getting this postseason win for long enough. Ayala, who rooms with Cowan on road trips, said he could tell how dialed in his teammate was when they watched the Belmont-Temple play-in game Tuesday night. The two took note of how each team played, and how Maryland could exploit any weaknesses.
“I felt like a coach, getting a scouting report together watching the game,” Ayala said.
Seven of the eight players in Maryland’s rotation are experiencing their first NCAA tournament. Freshman Ricky Lindo Jr., the youngest player on the team, said he has noticed all the March Madness logos. Even the door hanger to request privacy in his hotel room says March Madness, and he plans on keeping it.
Cowan, meanwhile, wants some memories that can take the place of those from the 2017 appearance. He wants to remember the experience, not just the painful moments after a loss. On Wednesday, Cowan looked around the locker room, where a group of his teammates, led by Terrell, joked around on camera, and said this is what he wants to remember.
Then, of course, on the court, Cowan will have a chance to play well and to lead his team. He could shed a label as someone who hasn’t been part of a team that delivers in the postseason. And Turgeon, too, could show that he can lead a team during this time of year.
Because a win in the NCAA tournament is “magnified about 100 times,” Turgeon said, recounting what he told his team. “And so that’s pretty cool. And then if you’re lucky enough to win another one, it’s amazing the way it’s magnified. So let’s be a part of that. Let’s figure out how to be a part of it.”