Terps' Simpkins steps up his game, quiets whispers GUARDING THE POINT

January 11, 1994|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Staff Writer

College Park -- The whispers began when Duane Simpkins made the McDonald's All-America team his senior year at DeMatha High School. They continued during his freshman season at Maryland, when Simpkins spent a lot more time brooding on the bench than contributing on the court.

Overrated.

Over-hyped.

Over his head.

The whispers returned this season, when Simpkins, now Maryland's starting point guard, took a couple of steps backward after hitting the shot that beat Georgetown in overtime in the opener. And not only did Simpkins hear the same, tired whispers, but also new ones about who was going to replace him in the lineup next season.

"Right before the Towson State game, there were rumors of certain players coming in here -- Michael Lloyd or maybe a couple of other guys," Simpkins recalled before practice yesterday. "I said to myself, 'Let's step it up.' "

Going into tonight's Atlantic Coast Conference game against Florida State (7-3, 0-2) at Cole Field House, Simpkins has done just that for Maryland (8-3, 1-1). Completely recovered from a preseason ankle injury that slowed his progress, the 6-foot, 170-pound sophomore from Fort Washington has quieted the whispers and has begun to erase the doubts.

"After what he's done against two of the best guards in the country -- Travis Best and Derrick Phelps -- people have to start respecting Duane for his ability to keep the ball in play and keep us in our offense," said Maryland coach Gary Williams. "He's done as good a job as anybody [in the ACC]. I don't think he could have done this two months ago. Whatever he's done to turn it around has been very positive."

It was Simpkins' early long-distance shooting against then-12th-ranked Georgia Tech that led to a 91-88 road upset. It was his fearless forays into the lane that helped the Terps stay competitive during a 75-70 loss to then-No. 2 (and now top-ranked) North Carolina Saturday at home.

"I don't have the talent that a lot of the guys do," said Simpkins, who has scored 18 points in each of his past three games -- his career high -- to bring his average up to 10.2. "But I have a pretty good work ethic. And the fact that I have a lot of confidence is to my advantage."

That is part of the game Simpkins never has lacked. From his days growing up in Southeast Washington, playing against older brother Sylvester and his friends, to his years at DeMatha, where he led the Stags to an 87-10 record and once told Georgia Tech assistant Sherman Dillard that "I'm going to be the next Kenny Anderson."

Simpkins can laugh at that statement now, but he doesn't totally discount making it. "That's the kind of mind-set you had to have as a player growing up in Southeast," said Simpkins, 19. "I know now that Kenny Anderson is in a different world, but that's the attitude you had to have. Even after I moved when my mother passed away, I took that with me. You can take the kid out of the city, but you can't take the city out of the kid."

It was Olivia Simpkins' death from breast cancer at age 32 that greatly shaped Duane Simpkins' world. Raised alone by his father, Sylvester Sr., the youngest member of the Simpkins family -- 9 when his mother died -- was forced to gain a perspective on life that few kids his age are asked to take until they are much older.

It certainly helped him last season, when Williams' loyalty to senior Kevin McLinton and Simpkins' tentativeness led to little playing time. Eventually, it led to Simpkins' thinking seriously about transferring at midseason, before his father told him to be patient.

"I've had some adversity before, but it was never from a lack of playing time," said Simpkins, who averaged a little under 11 minutes a game. "But I told my father that last year couldn't have been the worst thing that ever happened to me because the worst thing has already happened."

Said the elder Simpkins: "Last year was very trying for him, but like all of us, we need to be reminded of more important things. But what he is doing now he has done before. He just hasn't done it at this level."

Certainly, there are parts of his game that need improvement. His assist-to-turnover ratio is 1.4-to-1. His outside shooting seems to be feast (five of six on three-pointers against Georgia Tech) or famine (zero of six against North Carolina).

But given that he is only 11 games into his sophomore season, which is more like his freshman year (he's already played four more minutes than in all of 1992-93), Simpkins is starting to live up to the hype. Though he still can hear echoes of those whispers and still sense the residue of those doubts, this recent stretch has gone a long way to secure his future at Maryland.

"I'm used to playing in the big-type games, coming from DeMatha," said Simpkins. "Early in the season, I didn't seem to put out as much against the smaller schools as I probably should have. But this is what I came to Maryland for, to be the point guard."

Maybe an even underrated point guard, at that.

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