From a key players’ recent tear to a more promising NCAA tournament outlook, here are three takeaways from Maryland men’s basketball’s sweep of Nebraska on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Aaron Wiggins is playing his best basketball of the season at the right time.
As he graduated from a sixth-man role to a full-time starter, Wiggins has showcased his all-around game in his junior season, ranking second on the team in rebounds (5.6), sharing the team lead for assists (2.7) with senior guard Darryl Morsell and using his length to become an underrated defender. But Wiggins’ most valuable contribution comes on offense, where he has the potential to consistently be Maryland’s most dominant scorer.
He proved that again in the season sweep of Nebraska, combining for 43 points in the two outings. Wiggins was the best player on the court in the back-to-back games and played as if he knew it, remaining aggressive from tipoff. The outside shot has sometimes escaped him but he was 4-for-9 from beyond the arc in the 79-71 win on Wednesday night. Wiggins has now scored at least 17 points in six of the Terps’ last seven games.
“We’ve changed our offense a little bit, which gives him more freedom,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said. “He’s good at reading screens. He’s being more aggressive. Tonight, he made 3s, which was great. He’s got his midrange going. He’s really worked hard on driving and getting to the rim and shot faking and doing some stuff. So, he’s got the complete game there, which is really good to see for him.”
A slight caveat must be added that the two performances came against the Cornhuskers, who sit dead last in the Big Ten Conference. Regardless, the Terps have to be pleased by the strong play of Wiggins, along with fellow junior guard Eric Ayala as he set a new career-high for points, as they approach the end of the regular season.
Jairus Hamilton emerged as a welcomed bench scorer in Turgeon’s rotation.
In Maryland’s 72-59 win over Minnesota on Sunday, senior forward Galin Smith broke out with a season-best performance. Against Nebraska, it was time for another transfer to make a big contribution. Hamilton combined for 28 points off the bench, reaching double figures in both games, and shot 6-for-9 on 3-pointers.
Since Christmas Day, Hamilton has only started one game. But in Turgeon’s seven-man rotation, he has been a versatile piece, guarding opposing big men on defense and stretching the floor on offense.
“He’s a spark coming off the bench,” Wiggins said. “His ability to make shots, to hit 3s, he stretches out the defense because [in] our small-ball lineup, they have to play their four- or their five-man to guard him. So, it kind of opens up lanes when he gets in, and he’s able to space the floor and give us a little bit more to work with. He’s big for us.”
Maryland shifted its NCAA tournament outlook in a span of four days.
The Terps entered Sunday’s game against Minnesota losers of two straight, 4-9 in conference play and on the wrong side of the bubble in many bracket projections. But after three straight wins in four days, Maryland’s NCAA tournament projection has flipped. As of Thursday morning, ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi lists the Terps among the “Last Four Byes,” meaning they would not have to play in one of the “First Four” games.
After a grueling first-half schedule that included eight of 10 games against ranked opponents, Maryland’s postseason fate was ultimately going to be decided by how it fared over the course of a much more forgiving second half. The Terps’ toughest remaining game looms Sunday, as they travel to Piscataway, New Jersey, to face Rutgers (12-7, 8-7 Big Ten). After that, Maryland finishes the regular season against Michigan State (10-9, 4-9), Northwestern (6-13, 3-12) and then with a rematch against Penn State (7-10, 4-9).
“[We’re] definitely in a rhythm,” Ayala said. “We knew going into this last stretch, we want to win them out. No pressure but we’re trying to take one game at a time. I think we’re very talented, and everything’s kind of clicking right now.”