Aaron Wiggins had the matchup he wanted. Or at least it seemed that way four minutes into Saturday’s first half, with the Maryland men’s basketball guard drifting beyond the arc to receive the ball on a dribble handoff.
With Minnesota guard Gabe Kalscheur close, Wiggins jinked from left to right, then from right to left, hoping to find a crack in the defense.
Kalscheur wasn’t fooled. Wiggins stopped his dribble prematurely, feeling Kalscheur’s pressure intensify. Then, an opening emerged: Eric Ayala had snuck into the corner unmarked. Wiggins picked his head up and floated a pass to Ayala, who knocked down the triple.
Throughout his Maryland career, Wiggins has been expected to take that shot. Yet in the past few games, it’s been his all-around improvements that have drawn plaudits instead. Whether it’s as a playmaker, on the glass or on the defensive end, Wiggins’ multifacetedness has been apparent.
For a Terps squad still looking for its rhythm, that development has been vital.
“He leads us in assists, he’s second in rebounding. He’s been doing it all year,” coach Mark Turgeon said. “He’s all about winning.”
Wiggins’ versatility seemed unlikely at the beginning of the season. With Anthony Cowan and Jalen Smith gone, it appeared that Wiggins — the reigning Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year — would carry the brunt of the Terps’ scoring load.
That didn’t quite happen. Ayala and Donta Scott have emerged as the go-to scoring options so far. And while Wiggins still fills it up — he’s Maryland’s third-leading scorer, averaging 12.2 points per game — his role on the team has changed.
He has the ball in his hands more. Wiggins’ usage rate stands at 24.2 percent, up from 21.7 percent last season. He’s drawing more attention as well, opening up holes in the defense for the likes of Ayala and Scott to exploit. And he’s found those holes, with his assist rate climbing from 6.6 percent as a freshman to 20 percent this season.
“He gets so much attention, people close out on him hard,” Ayala said. “He’s a very unselfish player, and he’s willing to go out there and do whatever it takes to win.”
Wiggins notched four assists against the Golden Gophers, the fifth time he has hit that total in 16 games this season. He matched that total just twice in his first two seasons in College Park.
“I think I’ve improved a lot, just being able to see the court a lot better,” Wiggins said Jan. 14. “I feel like the game’s slowed down, and I feel it’s just a lot different from the way I came in as a freshman.”
On the other side of the court, Wiggins was just as effective. With Turgeon opting for a small-ball lineup to start the game, Wiggins was tasked with guarding Minnesota forward Brandon Johnson. At 6-foot-8 and 220 pounds, Johnson posed more of a physical threat than Wiggins is used to.
Still, he performed admirably, offering major contributions as the Terps held Johnson scoreless in the first half.
“He didn’t come to Maryland to guard a [6-foot-8] kid, but that’s just where we are,” Turgeon said. “That’s what he did, and he battled him.”
That battle continued on the boards, with Wiggins undeterred by Johnson’s frame. He racked up 10 rebounds, part of a 38-30 rebounding advantage for the Terps.
There’s still more room for Wiggins to improve. His shooting, once his calling card, has been largely inconsistent over the course of the season. Although Wiggins’ finishing at the rim has made strides — his field goal percentage on two-pointers is nearing 50 percent — he’s hitting just 30.4 percent of his threes.
Still, Wiggins’ performance on Saturday was telling. Although his shot wasn’t falling, he was a central figure on both ends of the floor. His handle appears a little tighter. His passing is a bit crisper. His defensive effort is a tad more consistent.
And those improvements might give Maryland an extra edge as it finds its footing in a stacked Big Ten.
“I just want to help our team win and if that’s scoring or creating, it doesn’t matter,” Wiggins said Jan. 14. “I just want to make sure I’m being aggressive and still playing to the best of my ability.”