COLLEGE PARK, Md. — When Mark Turgeon was asked in January if Aaron Wiggins would return to the starting lineup as the team headed into the meat of its Big Ten schedule, Maryland’s basketball coach said he would be sticking with his regular starting five because the quintet was sound defensively.
Turgeon was true to his word. Maryland’s starting five of junior guard Anthony Cowan, sophomore guard Darryl Morsell, freshman guard Eric Ayala, freshman forward Jalen Smith and sophomore center Bruno Fernando has not changed in 13 games.
But Wiggins, who started four of the first 12 games of the season, might as well be the sixth starter. The freshman guard is averaging 24 minutes per game this season, by far the most of any reserve and just one minute per game shy of Morsell (25.2).
In recent games, Wiggins’ offensive potential off the bench has become more apparent. He led the team in scoring during losing efforts at Michigan State Jan. 21 and at Michigan Feb. 16.
Despite the lopsided final score (65-52) against the Wolverines, Wiggins had his most complete game of conference play with a game-high 15 points, six rebounds and team-leading three assists.
“It really helps us when Aaron scores,” Turgeon said. “It got us back in the game the other day [against Michigan] as bad as we were playing. Aaron made shots and gave us a chance.”
Against Purdue, Wiggins said his confidence was boosted by sinking a pair of 3-pointers in the first half. It led to a personal 5-0 run later in the game when the score was tied to help put away the Boilermakers.
“The opportunity presented itself, so I was just taking the open shots with confidence and staying poised,” Wiggins said. “My teammates encourage me, ‘If you get an open shot, go shoot it, don’t hesitate.'”
Ayala knows firsthand how explosive offensively Wiggins can be. The pair matched up against one another for the last four or five years on the AAU circuit, all-star games and Under Armour camps, according to Ayala.
“I know what Aaron’s capable of,” Ayala said. “When he goes out there and plays how he plays it’s not surprising. I’ve been on the other side of him shooting the ball on me.”
The 6-foot-6, 200-pound Wiggins, a native of Greensboro, N.C., is fifth on the team in scoring (8.7 points per game). He’s a sniper from the free throw line (87 percent) and has missed just three of his 23 attempts all season. Wiggins has also led the team in scoring twice, the only Terp outside of Cowan (10 times), Fernando (eight), Smith (five) and Ayala (one) to do so this season.
“He’s become more aggressive,” Turgeon said. “The shots are there; he’s just got to be willing to take them when it comes in our offense. We are running things for him now.”
Wiggins said facing Morsell — the team’s No. 1 defender — in practice has prepared him for tough Big Ten defenses.
“He’s definitely pushed me to be a better offensive player and even a better defensive player,” Wiggins said of Morsell. “We always match up against each other playing close to the same positions and he’s a really great defender. Just trying to make sure I stay aggressive, and he’s helped me when it comes to ball-handling, shooting open shots, having a quick release, so his defense has definitely made a huge difference on me.”
But where Wiggins arguably makes his biggest impact is from beyond the arc. He’s currently 52 of 122 (42.6 percent) on the season, second on the team behind the hot-shooting Ayala (44.8 percent). Wiggins has had 10 games with three or more 3-pointers, and he hit five against Michigan State Jan 21.
“Aaron is a really good shooter and everybody knows that,” Fernando said. “His confidence went up a lot more now after these two games that he had, which is good for us as a team. So we’ve got to keep his confidence high where it is and keep doing what we’re doing as a team to give him open shots.”
BRUNO BLAMES HIMSELF FOR HIS POOR PLAY AGAINST MICHIGAN: Michigan head coach John Beilein avoided doing what seemingly every other coach in the conference has done this season: double-team Bruno Fernando. For much of the game Feb. 16, Fernando was guarded one-on-one and the sophomore big man appeared rushed and unused to being given so much space. He missed four layups and turned the ball over twice in a brutal first half. Fernando took responsibility for his performance.
“I think I tried to do way too much when I could have just kept it simple and do the things I do on a regular basis,” Fernando said. “I put it on me that first half. It wasn’t my best half of the year.”
Fernando did bounce back and finished with 12 points and eight rebounds.
TRANSITION DEFENSE IS STILL AN ISSUE: Michigan, the second slowest team in the Big Ten according to kenpom.com, pushed the ball against Maryland, scoring 10 of its 27 first-half points in transition. This has been a recurring theme for the Terps, who have had several lopsided fast-break margins. Turgeon chalked the issue up to simply a lack of effort by his team, something Fernando said they are capable of fixing.
“Just getting back and putting in a lot more effort in it,” Fernando said. “Just sprinting back on defense every time making sure we have three guys down there and two guys rebounding. We just keep working on that, having guys running as soon as the shot goes up.”
THE TERPS REMAIN AT NO. 24: After going 1-1 against two ranked opponents — defeating then-No. 12 Purdue, 70-56, Feb. 12 and losing at then-No.6 Michigan, 65-52, Feb. 16 — Maryland held steady at No. 24 for the third straight week. This is the Terps’ sixth straight week in the top 25. They peaked at No. 13 Jan. 21. A loss to No. 21 Iowa Feb. 19 will almost assuredly drop them out of the rankings.
BIG TEN TOURNAMENT SEEDINGS STILL UP FOR GRABS: With five games remaining in the regular season for the Terps, the top six teams in the conference are within 2.5 games of each other. Maryland sits 1.5 games behind third-place Purdue (11-3), is tied with Wisconsin at 10-5 and a half game up on its next opponent Iowa (9-5).
Only one remaining game on the Terps’ schedule — Michigan March 3 — is against an opponent above them in the standings. They will need to take care of business against the Hawkeyes Feb. 19 and avenge their recent loss to the Wolverines to keep pace with the other five teams. Otherwise, the Terps could squander the chance at a top-four finish and a double-bye in next month’s Big Ten tournament.
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox