Washington

Wiggins has played Maryland onto the right side of the bubble

Washington

Prior to Maryland tipping off its 2020-21 season, it was clear to fans that junior guard Aaron Wiggins needed to be the team's best player in order for the Terps to make any noise in March.

The former top-50 recruit out of North Carolina hadn't taken the sophomore leap many expected the year before, but with Anthony Cowan graduated and Jalen Smith off to the NBA, there was a power vacuum at the top of the Terps' scoring food chain. And Wiggins has long been the player best suited to fill the role of alpha dog in Mark Turgeon's offense.

But despite Wiggins being the most purely talented player on this year's roster, he hasn't risen to the occasion as often as fans had hoped, even as an upperclassman. Wiggins can occasionally get too deferential when passing up scoring chances, though he does happen to be the team's best passer.

Still, it's his shooting touch and ability to get to the rim that make Wiggins such an enticing offensive option and such a frustrating player to watch when he isn't playing with aggression. But crucially for Maryland's postseason chances, and his own potential NBA future, the switch has finally flipped for Wiggins in recent weeks. And for a team just beginning to find itself on the right side of the NCAA Tournament bubble, his explosion couldn't have come at a better time.

Wiggins is averaging 13.5 points per game this season, but he's topped 17 points in six of the team's last seven games. If you remove his fluky two point outing at Penn State, a game in which the entire Terps offense played its worst basketball of the season, Wiggins is averaging 18.8 points per game in the last month. He's also averaging nearly seven rebounds per game in that span, plus a couple of assists.

 

His improved outside shot has been the biggest key to the turnaround. Again, if you remove the Penn State loss, Wiggins has made 16 of his last 40 three-point shots, which is exactly 40%. For a team that lives and dies by its shooting beyond the arc, that's a critical number for its highest-volume shooter.

And Wiggins knows it's important to stay confident when shooting.

"Shots start to fall, continuing to stay aggressive, seeing the ball go in, you know, just increases the confidence and just feeling comfortable out there playing well," Wiggins said after the first win over Nebraska. "Just be aggressive, you know, I was able to get to the basket a couple times before then and I was getting open looks on the perimeter. But you know, even though I wasn't really hitting them, just continuing to stay confident, stay aggressive and make plays."

The three-point shooting has also opened things up for Wiggins to more aggressively drive to the rim, and he's vastly improved his ability to finish inside. He's making 48.1% of his two-point attempts this season, which is a career high.

Wiggins' turnaround has helped key a Maryland run that has put the Terps firmly in contention for a tournament bid. The current roster has looked at times this season like a group of strong supporting players without a leading star. But Wiggins is the one player who can change that, putting the team on his back and becoming the star for the team's role players to build around.

With Wiggins limiting himself to streaky outside shooting, the Terps are a team that can't hope for much more than being on the tournament bubble. With him playing at an All-American level? They all of a sudden have an offense capable of matching their typically stingy defense and making some noise in March.

It also could mean that Wiggins' time in College Park has an earlier expiration date than previously thought. He hasn't played like an NBA prospect for much of the season, but if his recent tear continues into an NCAA Tournament win or two, then scouts will take notice. He's always had the physical tools and a reputation as an excellent kid with strong intangibles. Turning that potential into a star-making postseason run could convince Wiggins to forgo his senior season.

Whatever happens next season, Turgeon and the Terrapins are trying to win now, a position they're only in thanks to Wiggins and his fellow guards. There are worse places to be than having a veteran, winning backcourt that's played together for three seasons as the Terps have in Wiggins, Eric Ayala and Darryl Morsell.

 

And if Wiggins can stay hot from outside and keep playing with aggression, all of a sudden the Terps might have a chance to win a couple games in March for the first time in years.