COLLEGE PARK -- Six games into his college basketball career at Maryland, the smile was gone from Duane Simpkins' face and the bounce was gone from his step. The former prodigy was struggling.
While fellow freshmen Johnny Rhodes and Exree Hipp were starting -- even starring -- for the Terrapins, Simpkins was coming off the bench for the first time in his life. He wasn't playing much behind senior Kevin McLinton, and when he got in, he wasn't playing well.
"I was looking over my shoulder," said Simpkins, whose playing time had decreased to the point where he played only 10 minutes against Towson State. "I was worried that if I made a mistake, Coach [Gary] Williams was going to take me out. Now I try to go in there and make things happen."
While Rhodes and Hipp came back to reality in Maryland's Atlantic Coast Conference season-opening 85-75 loss to No. 10 Georgia Tech on Tuesday night, Simpkins -- a 6-foot, 160-pound point guard -- continued to show rapid improvement.
Playing with McLinton, Simpkins sparked the Terps during their second-half comebacks from deficits of 21 points and 19 points. Though he missed a critical three-pointer that would have cut the deficit to six late in the game, Simpkins certainly left a positive impression.
"He's a much more confident player," Williams said. "It's the first time in his life that he's not the man. Duane's really worked hard. He's a very intelligent kid. He's figured it out. He knows that he's going to be the point guard after this year, but he knows he has to help us this year, too."
Simpkins hopes to help Maryland (8-2, 0-1) this afternoon. The Terrapins have an even bigger challenge than Georgia Tech when they play sixth-ranked North Carolina (11-1, 1-0) at Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C. It's the first of two straight road games for the Terps, who play at Florida State on Wednesday.
Because McLinton is playing with a sprained right wrist, Simpkins could see his role expanded against the Tar Heels, who love to put pressure on with their half-court trap and run-and-jump defenses. Simpkins is looking forward to the opportunity.
"When I'm sitting on the bench the first five minutes, the game's kind of methodical," said Simpkins. "If I get in, I tell Evers [Burns] to get me the ball on the break. That's my game. That's what I think we do best as a team, playing a transition game."
It is likely to be the only way Maryland can beat North Carolina, with its massive front line that sometimes includes 7-footers Eric Montross and Kevin Salvadori, as well as 6-8 senior George Lynch, a player who has always hurt the Terps on the offensive boards.
Williams has fared as well against legendary Tar Heels coach Dean Smith as against anybody else in the ACC -- the teams are 3-3 in Williams' first three years -- and knows that it has more to do with the style of play than with the talent level of his players.
"We've got to make our style work," Williams said. "You can't back off Carolina. You look at the success Florida State had against them last year and that we had. We can't play with them inside, so we've got to make it a game of speed vs. size."
That's where Simpkins comes in. Though not the blur he was reported to be during his remarkable career as a four-year starter at DeMatha High School, Simpkins does have more quickness than any Maryland point guard since Rudy Archer.
It was his quickness and leadership more than his ability to score that helped make Simpkins a McDonald's All-American at DeMatha. Though he led the Stags to an 87-10 record, Simpkins heard the talk that he was overrated and might be overmatched at Maryland.
"I've always heard that being at DeMatha," said Simpkins, the first freshman guard to make the varsity under Morgan Wootten. "No matter how good you are, there are going to be people who say you're not that good. I've learned that you have to tune those people out and take the good with the bad."
Simpkins compares his current situation with the experience Bobby Hurley went through at Duke as a freshman. Though he started right away, and played for a much better team, Hurley was as inconsistent as Simpkins has been. Like Hurley, Simpkins is trying to silence the skeptics.
"At the beginning of the year, people were probably saying, 'Why is Duane out there?' " said Simpkins, who is shooting 35 percent from the field, but 50 percent (4-for-8) from three-point range. "Now I want to make people ask, 'Why isn't Duane out there more?'"