A year ago, Dion Wiley was still struggling with his recovery from a knee injury that sidelined him the previous season. Jared Nickens was healthy, but his jump shot was ailing.
As a result, the two players who came to Maryland with Melo Trimble and Michal Cekovsky in 2014 had been passed by a trio of incoming freshmen — Anthony Cowan Jr., Kevin Huerter and Justin Jackson.
While Nickens eventually overcame a horrendous start to become a reliable 3-point shooter in Big Ten play last season, Wiley was in and out of the lineup and rarely part of coach Mark Turgeon’s regular rotation.
That will likely change this season, if their performance in Sunday’s 96-43 win over UMES is any indication of what the two upperclassmen can give the Terps.
Going into Wednesday’s meeting with Butler at Xfinity Center in the Gavitt Tipoff Games, Wiley and Nickens have showed signs that they are ready to assume bigger roles than they did a year ago.
Wiley, now a redshirt junior, has played well in easy victories over Stony Brook and UMES, and has been used as Maryland’s first guard off the bench in both games.
“It feels great,” Wiley said after scoring 13 points on 5-for-8 shooting (3-for-6 on 3-pointers) in Maryland’s win over UMES on Sunday. “I’ve been hurt the past two years, so it feels great to get back into action.”
Said Turgeon: “Dion’s a good player. He was a top-50 player coming out of high school. He’s just had tough breaks. He’s healthy; he’s been healthy. I do feel he’s confident now."
Nickens, who aside from Cekovsky is the only senior on this year’s team to have played his entire career at Maryland, had one of his better shooting nights as a Terp against UMES after playing just five scoreless minutes in the season opener against Stony Brook.
“I hope to build off of every game,” said Nickens, who scored 15 points and didn’t miss a shot — five total, including four 3-pointers — in his 18 minutes on the court. “I’ve got to stay consistent in the gym and practice hard.”
That has always been a problem for Wiley.
As a high school player, Wiley had trouble early in his career because of poor practice habits, particularly on the defensive end.
It was something that he figured he needed to improve this season, with speculation that freshman Darryl Morsell (Mount Saint Joseph) was going to find his way on the court in front of him because of defense.
“I think just locking in defensively and trying to do the right things defensively and playing hard all the time,” Wiley said. “When I came here, I wasn’t really doing that.”
Turgeon even talked to Wiley about what he expected after the season opener.
“I sat him down and said, ‘If you don’t guard better, you’re not going to play 25 minutes [in a game] the rest of the year,’” Turgeon said Tuesday. “He played 26 [against UMES]. He guarded better.”
Said Wiley: “He told me to stay confident. He wants me to shoot more. He wants me to defend and rebound more. If I focus on that, my playing time will continue to increase.”
Nickens also has to put in the same effort at both ends of the floor — as well as hit open 3-pointers.
A year after shooting just 9-for-38 on 3-pointers in nonconference play — recovering by hitting a more respectable 18-for-41 on 3-pointers in the Big Ten — Nickens remains the same quietly confident player he was when he hit several big shots off the bench as a freshman.
“I always feel like I could hit shots.” he said Sunday. “Everyone goes through their ups and downs. I just stayed in the gym this summer to make sure I could be the best player I could be.”
While Nickens’ struggles have mostly been in his head, Wiley’s have been largely because of his health. After recovering from a torn meniscus, Wiley had recurring back problems last season and sprained an ankle in the preseason.
Asked how important it is to get off to a good start this season, Wiley said, “It’s really important because I think those two years held me back a little bit. These next two years can mold my college career.”
Recalling the conversation he had with Wiley before Sunday’s game, Turgeon said, “I said, ‘The past two years haven’t been very fun, but you’ll remember these last two years more than any of them, so let’s make the most of them.’ He’s off to a good start.”
The message to Nickens has been about the same.
“In his senior year, he just wants to have fun,” Turgeon said. “It goes so fast. … I’m sure he wants to play more, everyone does. My whole deal with him is, ‘Jared, you’re going to stay on the floor if you guard. If you miss shots, I’m OK with that, but you’ve got to defend.’”
Said Nickens: “Definitely, my mentality’s different being that I won’t play college ever again. My main focus in just winning and getting back to the tournament with a team that’s going to win a lot of games.”
As freshmen, Wiley and Nickens, as well as Trimble, got matching tattoos that read, “My brother’s keeper.” With Trimble starting his professional career, the brotherhood will be intact until Nickens graduates after the season.
Asked how it felt to see Wiley get his chance again, Nickens said, “He’s been through a lot, so to see him get back to this point is very pleasing.”
The feeling is mutual.
“It felt really good,” Wiley said of watching Nickens’ hot shooting. “I know he’s been struggling a little bit shooting the ball. It felt really good to see him make shots tonight.”
Their teammates noticed.
Huerter, who started every game as a freshman and averaged nearly 30 minutes a game, acknowledged Tuesday that the team’s ceiling is even higher if Nickens and Wiley shoot as well as they did Sunday.
“It definitely does, and to be honest, I don’t know if we know the ceiling of this team yet,” Huerter said. “Jared and Dion, they know their roles. Those are guys that can make shots. Anytime they’re playing better makes us deeper as a team and gives other guys a rest, for sure.”