By the end of the 2014-15 Maryland men’s basketball season, Potomac High School basketball coach Renard Johnson was used to the phone calls.
Colleges were asking if there was any truth to the whispers that Johnson’s former star, Dion Wiley, was transferring from Maryland after his freshman year, when he started just two games and averaged 13.5 minutes per contest.
No matter who was asking, Johnson had the same answer.
ABOVE: Wiley could be the key to the Terps’ last chance at the 2018 NCAA tournament.
“Until you hear from Dion, or he shows up in front of you,” Johnson would say, “he’s not leaving.”
Johnson was right, but Wiley’s middling rookie campaign turned out to be more successful than his next two seasons at Maryland, tanking his confidence and offering the once-heralded recruit challenges he hadn’t faced.
Still, the 6-foot-4 guard remained in College Park, battling through seasons mired or erased by injuries.
Wiley has earned starting minutes in his redshirt junior year, reaping the benefits of staying the course. He’s shown flashes of the star potential those around him believe he still has despite the struggles he’s endured in his first four college years.
Starting Thursday, Maryland will rely on Wiley to continue his best-ever season in the Big Ten tournament, its final chance to make the NCAA tournament for the fourth consecutive season.
ABOVE: Wiley graduated from Potomac High School as a state champion and the No. 2-ranked player in Maryland. (Courtesy Dion Wiley)
Wiley has “loyalty” tattooed on the inside of his left bicep, and he displayed that faithfulness during his rise as a high school prospect.
After being academically ineligible as a freshman at Potomac, Wiley burst onto the scene as a sophomore and led Potomac to the 3A state championship game as a junior. During those summers, Johnson heard the names of various schools Wiley was supposedly enrolling in for the upcoming year.
Then, the first day of school came, and Wiley was still at his hometown public school in Oxon Hill.
“He’d walk right through the door and say, ‘Coach, you already know,’” Johnson said. “I’d say, ‘I already know, but there’s about 10 other people who need to know!’”
Wiley’s devotion to his roots, more than anything, is why he remained at Potomac rather than taking the evermore-popular private school route. He also continued playing AAU games with the Maryland Ruff Riders even after joining the more prestigious Team Takeover.
In his senior season in 2014, Wiley powered the Wolverines to their first state title since 2005.
ABOVE: Wiley got his “Loyalty” tattoo in ninth grade, and he’s shown his dedication to his teams in the years since. (Marquise McKine/The Diamondback.)
“It was home to me,” Wiley said. “I just felt like that was where my heart was.”
Wiley — whom 247Sports ranked the No. 52 player in the nation and No. 2 player in Maryland in the 2014 class — continued his devotion to his home by committing to Maryland without visiting any other school from his extensive list of high-profile offers.
In a video from July, Wiley held the Maryland flag with the caption: “You know I’m reppin the home team.”
“Nothing meant more to Dion than playing in his neighborhood school,” said Ricky Goings, who works with D.C.-area basketball players and has become a mentor to Wiley, “and going to Maryland to play in front of those same people.
“He’s not a change-up guy. He’s not a guy to act brand new.”
ABOVE: Wiley played sparingly in his freshman season and injuries marred his next two years. (File Photo/The Diamondback)
Wiley’s decision to play with his local teams growing up meant he didn’t always face the highest level of competition.
So, despite his recruiting pedigree, playing with Maryland was a wakeup call.
“Mentally and physically,” Goings said, “he wasn’t properly prepared for what high-major Division I basketball was going to be like.”
Wiley said when he initially arrived to Maryland, he didn’t understand the work ethic required to be successful. He was a role player his freshman season and watched classmates Melo Trimble and Jared Nickens thrive.
“I was always just told to fight through adversity, wherever I was.”
—From struggling with playing at the college level to his knee injury, Wiley's first year with the Terps wasn't smooth sailing.
Then, before the start of the 2015-16 season, Wiley tore his meniscus, forcing him to sit out the year as a medical redshirt.
The bigger disappointment came when Wiley returned the next season. Early in the year, Wiley doubted he’d ever be the same player.
“It affected my confidence a lot when I got back,” Wiley said. “I was a little bit slow. I wasn’t as explosive as I was before I got hurt.”
Once Wiley neared full health, his former AAU coach, Steve Jiggette, said the lack of playing time frustrated Wiley.
“In his mind, he’s 100 percent,” Jiggette, “so he’s wondering, ‘Why am I not playing?’”
Adding to the nightmare season was a lingering back injury that held Wiley to 20 games in his sophomore year.
Wiley never found a rhythm during his first season back. Two years and one knee surgery removed from his disappointing debut campaign, Wiley’s starts (zero), minutes (10.3) and points (3.1) dipped.
Jiggette said when Wiley was on the court that year, he often looked over his shoulder for when he would be substituted out, leading to tentative play.
After the season, Jiggette, as he does every year with former players, asked Wiley whether he wanted to stay at Maryland, and Wiley — like he has every year — said yes.
“I was always just told to fight through adversity,” Wiley said, “wherever I was.”
ABOVE: Wiley’s increased focus on defense this season led to more playing time. (Matt Regan/The Diamondback)
Entering last fall, Wiley had lost the shine he held as a recruit and, along with it, some of his supporters from Oxon Hill.
However, he boasted the best work ethic of his Maryland career and a clean bill of health.
“These last two years haven’t been any fun,” Terps coach Mark Turgeon told him before the year. “But you’re going to remember these last two years more than any of them, so let’s make the most of them.”
Wiley seemed to take the message to heart, especially on the defensive end. Wiley admits he didn’t take defense seriously before arriving in College Park.
“Turgeon explained to me that the only way I would play,” Wiley said, “is if I was going to defend.”
Additionally, Goings said Wiley discovered playing defense could guarantee him minutes and ease the pressure he felt as a sophomore.
After Wiley endured early-season inconsistencies and minor injuries, Turgeon has commended Wiley’s defense during conference play, and the seventh-year coach said Wiley contributes more than fans realize.
Wiley sealed Maryland’s win over Wisconsin on Feb. 4 with a block with about two seconds left.
Against Northwestern on Feb. 10, Wiley followed one of his quietest games of the season with his most complete outing of the year, Turgeon said. Maryland won, 73-57, and held star Wildcats guards Bryant McIntosh and Scottie Lindsey to a combined 8-for-25.
“When he’s knocking down shots, locked in defensively, that’s when we have our best Dion,” guard Darryl Morsell said. “We’re going to need that in the Big Ten tournament.”
ABOVE: This year was Wiley’s best so far as a Terp, but many people believe he can reach another level. (Marquise McKine/The Diamondback)
Wiley’s health has allowed him to experience a resurgent season, but his improved mentality as the season’s progressed has been nearly as important. Johnson said by showing belief in him and giving him playing time, Turgeon allowed Wiley to reach new heights.
Wiley enters the Big Ten tournament having earned starts in 16 of his 27 appearances, averaging a career-high 21.7 minutes and 5.8 points.
“At times [last year] when I stepped on the floor, I wasn’t really confident,” Wiley said. “If I would try to attack the rim or take a shot, I would feel out of place. Now, my teammates and my coaches encourage me to do stuff like that.”
So, as Turgeon hoped before the season, Wiley has enjoyed his junior campaign more than any previous years.
Johnson said on a scale of 1-10, Wiley’s confidence is at a seven or eight this season, after being as low as a one last year. Jiggette said his weekly check-ins have had a more positive tone.
Wiley’s served as Maryland’s X-factor, since the team’s results often depend on his output. During the Big Ten tournament in New York, Wiley and Maryland’s other supplementary pieces will be tested by playing games on consecutive days, if the Terps win.
Despite his improvement, Wiley and his coaches agree he has yet to play to his potential.
This season, for the first time since he won a state title for Potomac on the Comcast Center floor, Wiley offered hope he can reach the goal he’s been chasing for four years: shine for his local college the same way he did for his hometown high school.
“The ending of his story at Maryland,” Goings said, “is going to surprise some people.”