When Anthony Cowan Jr. stepped off the floor of Xfinity Center for the final time as a Terp last March, the program lost much more than just its starting point guard.
With his graduation, Maryland men’s basketball was forced to say goodbye to one of its most prolific passer-scorers in program history (seventh all-time in points and fifth all-time in assists), as well as one of its key leaders both on and off-the-floor.
However, the Terps didn’t see Cowan off without a succession plan in place. Next in line to become the team’s lead guard is junior Eric Ayala, a 6’5 combo guard that’s played second fiddle to Cowan for each of the last two seasons. But despite limited experience as a true point guard, Ayala’s predecessor believes he’s ready for his new role.
“[Anthony] has a lot of confidence in me,” Ayala said. “We talk a lot ... he’s always a phone call away. I guarantee if I call him he’ll probably pick up on the second or first ring, just having that relationship with him will always be helpful whenever I come across anything. If I have a question, he’ll be right there.”
But the confidence doesn’t end with just Cowan. Ayala’s teammates have rallied around him as a player who can comfortably and effectively lead the offense night in and night out, with his growth over the last two years being a testament to that fact.
“He’s ready to lead, for sure,” senior guard Darryl Morsell said. “He done been around in the Big Ten a while ... So I think he knows what to expect and he’s ready to embrace this challenge with the ball in his hands.”
Someone who’s especially been a spectator to Ayala’s growth over the years is fellow guard Aaron Wiggins. Ayala and Wiggins both competed against one another in the AAU circuit prior to joining the program as the marquee additions of the class of 2018, with each logging important minutes together for the Terps in both their freshman and sophomore seasons.
Having seen how much Ayala’s game has transformed over the years, Wiggins knows his former opponent and current backcourt running mate is ready for the responsibility of being a starting point guard this season.
“In this whole process, he’s done a really great job of just making sure that guys are, you know, just in the right spot, setting up the offense making sure guys are locked in at times and, and no one knowing where we should be,” Wiggins said. “He’s grown so much as a player.”
One of the things Ayala credits for his growth as a player over the years is the ultra-competitive summer pickup games he takes part in. Since his days in high school, Ayala has been a regular at Check Rock Runs, an organized scrimmage series which puts some of the best talent in Philadelphia, Delaware and other areas across the country on the floor together.
“The number one goal for us is just to compete at a high level, you know, push each other, but also get something out of the runs,” Ayala said. “I think with those runs, I was able to, find different moves offensively, stuff that I’ve been working on individually.”
Maryland offensive success has long been predicated on its talent at the guard position under head coach Mark Turgeon, with Ayala primed to lead that unit into the future. Over the last two seasons, Maryland’s guards have accounted for 64 percent of the team’s overall scoring, while Cowan alone accounting for 35 percent that guard total.
And although replacing Cowan’s production is a near impossible task, Ayala’s physical profile presents an opportunity for Maryland’s offense to have a primary point guard unlike one it has had in a long time.
“He can score in any way possible,” Wiggins said. “I think with his size, he can do a little bit more than Anthony could, you know, inside. Ant uses quickness, Eric uses his footwork.”
Yet, when it comes to making up for Cowan’s presence as an offensive leader, Ayala knows he has big shoes to fill in that regard as well. But for the typically mild-mannered junior, he’s making the all the adjustments he needs to try to meet the incredibly high bar set by the ones who came before him.
“I’m just trying to lead by example as much as I can,” Ayala said. “In practice, you know, trying to get other people to be more vocal.”