COLLEGE PARK -- First came Duane Simpkins, the point guard from DeMatha High School in Hyattsville. Then, Stacy Robinson, a small forward from DuVal High School in Lanham. And finally, Exree Hipp, a swing man from Harker Prep in Potomac.
Those three high school players already have been linked with the country's best blue-chip recruits. This week, it is likely they will forge a more lasting bond: as the players most responsible for bringing the University of Maryland back into a more welcomed national spotlight.
Simpkins, Robinson and Hipp announced in recent weeks their commitment to play for the Terrapins. When the early signing period begins today, all three are expected to make it official by putting their names on national letters of intent. The early signing period runs through Nov. 20.
Maryland coach Gary Williams hasn't commented on this group, in accordance with NCAA rules which prohibit coaches talking about recruits until they sign. But others are saying it's the best group the school has had in recent memory and within a quality big man of being the best assembled since Lefty Driesell brought in Tom McMillen and Len Elmore 20 years ago.
"I'm a big fan of Gary Williams; he's got Maryland basketball headed in the right direction," said Stu Vetter, who coaches Hipp and all-American center Serge Zwikker (North Carolina) at Harker Prep. "He brings a new style of play to the ACC."
The frenetic pace of Williams' teams has produced several upsets among the 35 victories in his first two years. But it has been done with players a tad slower and, with the exception of Walt Williams, less gifted than the kind he was able to recruit while at Ohio State and Boston College.
In addition to the expected early signees, there is Johnny Rhodes, a 6-foot-5 shooting guard from Washington who orally committed last spring. He is attending Maine Central Institute and is expected to attend Maryland next year if he can improve his Scholastic Aptitude Test score.
Together, the foursome would have the potential to lift the Terps quickly from the lower half of the ACC to the upper echelon; maybe not with Duke and North Carolina, but above just about everyone else.
"Everyone knows that Gary can really coach," said DeMatha coach Morgan Wootten. "It was just a matter of time before he got the players to fit into his system."
Said Tom Konchalski, who runs a New York-based recruiting service: "Sometimes you wonder if kids are going to fit into a coach's style. All these kids are Gary Williams-type players."
Williams was finally able to get the kind of players he wanted because Maryland's NCAA probation ends after this season. Two years ago, because of impending sanctions, the Terps lost Charles Harrison (to Georgetown) and John Leahy (to Seton Hall) after one had committed orally and the other had signed a national letter of intent.
Another problem that appears to be rectified is with the admissions office, which last spring rejected Donyell Marshall (now at Connecticut) and Lawrence Moten (now at Syracuse). They were rejected even though they met the standards of Proposition 48 set by the NCAA.
"I think there's a better understanding between all parties," one campus official said recently.
About the only hurdle left is getting a big-time recruit from Baltimore. That could be solved next year if Keith Booth, the 6-7 junior guard from Dunbar who is expected to be one of the country's top recruits next year, picks Maryland over Kentucky, Ohio State and Florida State. Booth said last week that he has thought more seriously about the Terps since Simpkins and Robinson, summer- league teammates this year, committed.
The one missing piece this year remains a big man, but one appears to be on the verge of signing. Mario Lucas, a 6-8 1/2 215-pounder from Memphis, Tenn., said yesterday that he planned to sign with Maryland on Monday. The Terps also are recruiting Steve Rich, a 6-9, 240-pounder from Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
"I've pretty much decided I'm going to Maryland," Lucas said yesterday from Fairley High School. "I'm going to take my visit to Memphis State this weekend, but I'm doing that because it's been in the papers that I would."
Lucas averaged 12 points and 10 rebounds on a 24-8 team that won the city championship last year.
"He can run, he can jump, he has the potential to be a great player," said Lucas' coach, Sylvester Ford. "He's still growing. He's almost 6-9, and his father is 6-9. I think Maryland's got themselves a pretty good player."
The Terps will have to take it one step at a time. But the first step back to a bright future appears to have been made.
"I think we're going to have a nice team," said Hipp, who is 6-7 and has a 40-inch vertical jump. "I think we can blend in the guys coming there next year with the guys already there and contend for an NCAA championship in a couple of years."
Duane Simpkins, 6-0, 160-pound point guard, DeMatha High School
Considered by some to be the best pure point guard prospect in the country. Has led DeMatha to 58-6 record since starting as a sophomore.
Stacy Robinson, 6-5, 210-pound small forward, DuVal High School
Might be the best player in the group, ability to go inside or shoot outside. Averaged 23 points and 12 rebounds as a junior.
Exree Hipp, 6-7, 170-pound swingman, Harker Prep
Some have compared his physique and his game to that of a young Walt Williams. His 40-inch vertical jump and penchant for alley-oop dunks will be perfect for Maryland's running game.
Mario Lucas, 6-8 1/2 , 215-pound forward/center, Fairley High, Memphis, Tenn.
Plans to sign Monday. Not as highly regarded as the others, but could develop into quality big man along the lines of former Terp Tony Massenburg.