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Anthony Cowan’s tenacious defense is making Maryland basketball’s guards better

Melo Trimble should benefit from this freshman’s constant pressure.

Scenes From Maryland Basketball's Open Practice Sammi Silber / Testudo Times

A gnat lands on the lid of the cold ice tea can you just opened on a hot summer day. You swat at it, but you can’t catch it. The gnat toys with you, knowing you aren’t quick enough to hit it. Freshman point guard Anthony Cowan is Maryland basketball’s gnat on defense. He magnetically attaches himself to the opposing guards’ hip on every dribble, picking up full court and forcing pressure from the beginning of each possession. He’s exactly what the Terps’ backcourt needs to go against every day in practice.

Cowan gets right in opposing guards Melo Trimble and Jaylen Brantley’s grills, hands swarming and mimicking their every move. He’s small but quick, and if one dribble is placed too far from the ball-handler’s body, he’s taking it the length of the court for a score.

“He’ll get a steal in practice and you’ll be like ‘did he really just do that?’” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon told reporters this week. “That’s a nice thing to have because it usually leads to a layup.”

Steals are the most valuable defensive stops, as the opponent isn’t set on the other end. With Cowan’s speed, that’ll mean open lanes and easy points. As talented as Maryland was a season ago, the team struggled to force turnovers, ranking 279th in KenPom’s defensive turnover percentage and 181st in steal percentage. Cowan will change that.

“He is a pest,” said Turgeon. “I’m sure Melo might have even told you, he gives him fits at times, which is making Melo even better because Anthony can get right underneath him. He’s probably going to be the fastest guy in the league. I couldn’t imagine anyone being faster.”

The freshman is making everyone work, and that’s a really good thing for a team that turned the ball over 12.7 times per game last year, good for third-worst in the Big Ten.

“He helped me with my ball-handling a lot,” said shooting guard Dion Wiley, who missed last season with a torn meniscus. He hasn’t played a real game in more than 19 months and is faced with a daunting task of keep-away from the fresh-legged 19-year-old on a daily basis.

“You have to have your handle tight when Anthony’s guarding you,” Wiley said. “He’s gonna pick you up full court. That’s what coach Turgeon wants. He really helped Melo a lot too. He’s like a Varun [Ram] type of defender.”

Ram is a former walk-on known for his defense, most notably in his heroic efforts in the Round of 32 two seasons ago.

Wiley is 6’5. Cowan is listed at 6’, but challenges all guards the same and showed that last week in Maryland’s open practice. He picks up ball handlers in the backcourt and has the quickness to stay right on their hip, which at least makes them uncomfortable. He picked Trimble’s pockets just as easily as Brantley’s, and it’s easy to forget how impressive that is given Trimble’s perennial status as one of the country’s top guards.

“I think Anthony’s defense has brought a lot to our team,” said Brantley, who will compete with Cowan for playing time. “When he’s getting into somebody on defense, everybody else around him is trying to play just as hard as him.”

Cowan should play serious minutes this year. Turgeon mentioned him as one of three freshmen who will contribute immediately. His defense will get him on the court, but his scoring abilities should make him a part of the offense as well. He’s proved throughout summer camps and his high school career that he’s able to get to the rim and shoot from deep. It may take him a little longer to adjust to finding the net at the collegiate level given his size, but his defense is ready now.