On Sunday, Anthony Cowan sat in the media room of the Xfinity Center with a net around his neck, fielding questions from reporters. The normally resolute Cowan was rather jubilant after his team had just clinched a share of the Big Ten regular season championship.
But when asked about the road ahead, Cowan’s smile vanished and his determined look returned.
“We got a lot more work to do,” he said.
Nobody would know at that time, but Sunday’s win over Michigan would be the last game in the senior’s decorated career. On Thursday, right before Maryland was set to depart for the Big Ten tournament with a chance to add more hardware, the NCAA canceled the NCAA Tournament due to the evolving COVID-19 health threat.
The decision effectively ends Cowan’s career, along with many seniors in the sport of college basketball, without a resolution. Would Cowan have led Maryland and head coach Mark Turgeon to that coveted Final Four? Or would they have fizzled out in round two of the tournament, looking like the team that dropped three of four down the stretch of the regular season. Nobody knows.
But what we do know is that it was a historic year for Maryland, as the Terps reached unchartered territory. Maryland shared their first Big Ten regular season title ever, and their first conference championship in the Turgeon era.
Despite dropping three of four down the stretch and losing the chance to win the championship outright, sharing first place in a league so many called the best conference in the country is a massive accomplishment. In the preseason, Michigan State was the odds on favorite to win it. After Thanksgiving, upstart Michigan was getting all the buzz. And by the time conference play started, Ohio State was seen as the team to beat.
But through it all, it was Maryland who was the most consistent team in the league. The Terps never fell from the AP rankings once. They won the Orlando Invitational, dominating Marquette in the championship. They rallied back from double-digits at Illinois to snag first place in the Big Ten. With the eyes of the nation on them, they came back against Cassius Winston and Michigan State in East Lansing to prove they were legitimate.
Maryland never got to prove just how legitimate they were. Cowan will graduate without having won a game in the Big Ten Tournament. Turgeon’s best chance at his first Elite Eight has vanished, as has Maryland’s best chance at making a Final Four since 2002.
Maryland fans certainly have a sour taste in their mouth as they yearned to see this play out. But what if the results hadn’t gone their way? What if the team that lost three of four games down the stretch reappeared in Indianapolis? What if they were bounced in the Sweet Sixteen?
Only one of the 68 teams in the field can win the NCAA tournament. Odds are, that team would not have been Maryland. While they had some quality wins, they had yet to face an opponent with the talent of Kansas, Kentucky or Duke. A Final Four run would have been amazing, but it ultimately was still unlikely.
Maryland’s season ends in heartbreak, but not at the hands of an opponent. We will never get to see how far this team could have gone, as Anthony Cowan and likely Jalen Smith have played their final career games. Maryland fan’s final image of Cowan will be him cutting down the nets at Xfinity Center, and maybe that’s not a bad thing after all.