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In coaching future Terp Aaron Wiggins in Capital Classic, former Terp Keith Gatlin has come 'full circle'

Former Maryland point guard Keith Gatlin talks about coaching in the Capital Classic after playing in the game 35 years ago, as well as coaching future Terp Aaron Wiggins. (Don Markus, Baltimore Sun video)

BOWIE — In the spring of 1983, a relatively unknown point guard named Keith Gatlin came up from his home in Greenville, N.C., to play for the United States team in the Capital Classic, then considered one of the premier high school all-star games in the country.

By the end of the night at the Capital Center in Landover, Gatlin showed his promise to Maryland fans in attendance, tipping in a shot to force overtime and scoring 18 points in a double-overtime loss to a local team led by guards Tommy Amaker and Muggsy Bogues.

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On Friday night, the now 53-year-old Gatlin will return to coach in a game that helped launch his career in College Park. Gatlin took the trip with Aaron Wiggins, who played for Gatlin at Wesleyan Christian School in High Point, N.C., and will play for the Terps starting next season.

The Capital Classic will be held at Catholic University in Washington.

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Maryland has hired Turnkey, a search firm specializing in sports and entertainment, and named a search committee to help in finding its next athletic director.

"It's a blessing," Gatlin said, sitting over lunch at a local restaurant before the team he'll coach practiced Thursday at the Bowie City Gym. "It's funny how things come full circle, actually playing in the game and now coaching. I'm thankful for the opportunity."

Gatlin, who still holds the single-season school record for 3-point shooting percentage (.496 as a senior in 1987-88) and whose 649 assists ranks third all-time behind Steve Blake and Greivis Vasquez, has seen several of his high school players go to Division I.

Wiggins, a 6-foot-6, 195-pound wing who went from being overlooked his first two years while playing at Grimsley High in Greensboro to No. 39 in the country in ESPN's final 2018 rankings, is the first to follow Gatlin to College Park.

"Everybody thinks, 'You finally got a kid going to Maryland,' " Gatlin said with a smile. "It's so funny. Coach [Mark] Turgeon and his staff were the first that actually came down and made these kids on my team a priority."

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Gatlin wanted to make sure Wiggins was interested in the Terps because he didn't want any backlash if things didn't work out. What helped Maryland was that assistant coach Dustin Clark was the first to pay more attention to Wiggins than others on Gatlin's team.

Mount Saint Joseph power forward Jalen Smith, who was expected to play with fellow Maryland signees Aaron Wiggins and Serrel Smith in the 2018 Capital Classic on Friday at Catholic University, has withdrawn because of a groin injury.

"Because I love Maryland, I never want these young men to say, 'Coach told me to go here and I don't like it or it's not what you said what it was,' " Gatlin said. "Sitting in North Carolina, it's a basketball hotbed. If you don't get on a kid early, you're going to lose.

"Kids are very visual. Who got on me first? Who's talking to me? I give Coach Turgeon and Dustin a lot of credit. They came in and made Aaron their No. 1 priority. I think it was easy for them to build a positive bond and it worked out great."

It also turned out that two of Wiggins' uncles, who live in Montgomery County, played a bigger role in recruiting him to Maryland than Gatlin. Wiggins said he felt comfortable when he made his official visit and was hosted by Anthony Cowan Jr. and Darryl Morsell.

In early June, Wiggins became the first player to orally commit to what has grown into the No. 7 overall class in the country and the top class in the Big Ten. He was joined a month later by Mount Saint Joseph forward Jalen Smith, No. 10 on ESPN's list.

Asked what the attraction was to Maryland, Wiggins said: "First off, just the way the coaches recruited me. They definitely made me a priority. They built a close relationship with me and my family. They were at all of my AAU games. Having family here in Maryland, I felt like they were just a call away if I needed them."

Given where he wound up in the ratings, Wiggins is on a similar trajectory to Maryland's burgeoning star, rising junior guard Kevin Huerter.

"I know rankings don't matter until you start playing against guys on the court," Wiggins said. "Everybody wants to be ranked. If you're playing against somebody ranked below you, they want to come at you as hard as they can. If you're playing against somebody ranked higher than you, they want to keep their ranking. You have to go out with the same attitude, which is to just kill everybody."

Gatlin recalled how several high-profile coaches came in to watch forward Jaylen Hoard, a five-star prospect from France who eventually chose Wake Forest. More than a few left asking more about Wiggins.

"They would come to our open gyms and say, 'This is the one I want,' " Gatlin said. "Arizona to California to Kansas, you name it. I always laugh about. Coach Turgeon came down the first time and said, 'That's the one right there.' He bee-lined on Aaron."

Notes: Wiggins will have to wait to play with Smith, who was supposed to be one of the headliners for Friday's game but will sit out after pulling a groin muscle in a private workout Wednesday in Baltimore. A recent Maryland signee, combo guard Serrell Smith of St. Petersburg, Fla., will play with Wiggins on Gatlin's team, as will Florida-bound Noah Locke (McDonogh).

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