The best candidate for that job might be Aaron Wiggins, the Terrapins’ top returning scorer and a junior wing who has spent the last two years developing as a player, improving his physicality and growing in confidence. Wiggins’s college resume doesn’t have all the flashy moments that Smith and Cowan produced last season, but typically residing a layer deeper in those box scores are times Wiggins delivered when needed, too.
On the possession before Smith’s game-winning layup at Indiana, Wiggins hit a three. When Darryl Morsell became the unlikely hero in Maryland’s 17-point comeback at Minnesota, Wiggins notched another late three, then the pass to Morsell for the winning shot in the final seconds. Smith garnered the headlines for his dominant performance in another comeback, this time at Northwestern, but Wiggins, a bit more quietly, scored what was at the time a career-high 17 points.
Coach Mark Turgeon expects this year’s team to congeal as a well-rounded group with a few experienced returners. But they still must navigate the voids left by Smith, a lottery pick in last week’s NBA draft, and Cowan, a four-year starter. Of the players back for the 2020-21 campaign, which begins Wednesday against Old Dominion, Wiggins leads the crew with 10.4 points per game and 53 three-pointers last season. And if Maryland needs someone to hit a shot in a critical moment?
“He better be the guy,” Keith Gatlin, Wiggins’s high school coach, said with a laugh.
Gatlin, who played at Maryland from 1983-88, watched Wiggins thrive as he became a more confident player during his 11th and 12th grade seasons at Wesleyan Christian Academy in North Carolina, and now the 6-foot-6 guard is riding a similar trajectory at Maryland.
“Everybody’s expecting a big jump out of Wiggs this year, including himself,” Turgeon said. “Being consistently better each and every night is really what I’m asking for out of him — to realize that Jalen’s not here anymore, Anthony Cowan’s not here anymore and he needs to kind of step into that role.”
Wiggins won’t need to dominate every game for Maryland to win. The Terps will lean on others, including Morsell, a defensive-minded senior leader; Eric Ayala, a junior guard who has started since his freshman season; and Donta Scott, a sophomore forward whose offensive role could grow this season. Together, these four players averaged 21.5 starts in 31 games last season. They’re an experienced group, but Maryland has been pegged as a bottom-tier Big Ten team in most projections.
“It’s kind of surprising, but it makes us play with more of a chip on our shoulder,” Wiggins said after rattling off the key contributors who return from the team that won a share of the Big Ten regular season title. “We’re going to go out there, [and] we kind of want the respect that we deserve.”
During Wiggins’s freshman season, he dealt with the usual adjustment process to the college game — the faster pace, new level of physicality and greater emphasis on schemes. He became an important piece of the rotation on Maryland’s young team, scoring 8.3 points per game, but Wiggins said, “I was kind of that guy that was just there for spacing, who could hit shots.” He became more involved in the offense last season and expects that role to grow even more this year.
Turgeon wants Wiggins to become a more consistent shooter. Turgeon reminds him: “You’ve only got to make four out of 10 from three and you’re an elite shooter. That’s not that hard to do, Wiggs, so just relax.”
As a sophomore, Wiggins felt like he became much more aggressive in the paint, looking for ways to score. In the waning moments of the first half against Notre Dame, Wiggins followed his missed three-pointer for a putback dunk, landing on “SportsCenter” as the top play of the day. Without Smith and Cowan this season, “a lot of us are going to have to be a lot more aggressive,” Wiggins said.
Wiggins started about half the team’s games last season, and Maryland eventually settled into a lineup that featured Wiggins as the first guard off the bench. Wiggins still played 28.6 minutes per game — the most behind Cowan and Smith — but he “maybe didn’t have starter mentality when it came to scoring,” Turgeon said earlier this month. Turgeon repeatedly said last season he wanted Wiggins to be more assertive, and for Maryland to succeed this season, Wiggins will need to embrace that mind-set.
“I don’t think he’s feeling, from what I can gather, any pressure of that next step,” Turgeon said. “I think it’s something he’s really looking forward to.”
Before last season, Wiggins garnered loads of praise from his teammates and coaches for his work ethic through the offseason. Every aspect of his game, Turgeon said, has improved since he arrived in College Park.
During high school, Gatlin harped on how he wanted Wiggins to be more aggressive as an offensive leader. Sometimes, “he didn’t feel like he wanted to step on any toes,” Gatlin said, but Wiggins had a standout summer after 11th grade. He began flourishing and exuding confidence.
“Some guys you’ve got to tell to slow down a little bit and, ‘You can’t do the stuff you think you can do,’” Gatlin said. “But Aaron is a guy that can give more. Whenever he decides, ‘Okay, it’s my time to do it,’ he takes off.”
So maybe at Maryland Wiggins will follow a similar path, which features a self-assured ascent. About a month ago, Wiggins sent Gatlin a picture showing off his Big Ten championship ring. Gatlin reminded Wiggins he also earned a ring after winning the ACC tournament in 1984. Gatlin loves playing golf, so around the same time, Wiggins sent his former coach a video of his swing, insisting that he’s improving. Those texts were lighthearted and inconsequential, but to Gatlin, they affirmed the type success Wiggins could soon unlock.
“That’s that confidence coming out,” Gatlin said. “Then I knew he was on his way.”