Terps in the hands of Simpkins

March 19, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

WICHITA, KAN — WICHITA, Kan. -- The formula for winning NCAA tournament games isn't as complicated as the hoop doctors would have you believe. You have a chance to get hot in the Big Jalapeno, or whatever we're calling it, as long as you have two items: a big man and a point guard.

Consider Maryland's first-round win over Saint Louis. Sensational Freshman Joe Smith was -- what else? -- sensational, but the Terps also needed a career game from Duane Simpkins to keep from losing.

The sophomore point guard missed four of seven shots and scored only seven points, so it doesn't sound like his best game, especially when he had a couple of 18-pointers during the season. But he had 11 assists and ran the offense with an upperclassmen's aplomb, finding the open man all game. The Terps shot 58 percent, and needed it all.

To win again today in their second-rounder against Massachusetts, they will need to follow the same formula. Unlike when they were blasted by UMass in December, Smith needs to stay out of foul trouble and have a big game. And against a high-pressure defense, Simpkins needs to make sure the Terps run their offenseand get good shots.

Their lack of such patience was often their failing in the last month of the season, when they lost eight of 12 games. As the Saint Louis game proved, they can play with anyone when they play intelligently. That they do so falls squarely within the boundary of Simpkins' job description. As coach Gary Williams said before the tournament, when asked if the Terps needed big games from Smith to win: "Joe, yes -- and Duane, too."

Fortunately for the Terps, Simpkins doesn't tremble at the thought: He is accustomed to the hot seat, having been on it for two years.

Of the five top recruits now composing the starting five, Simpkins was the only one who didn't play right away. Considereda blue-chip prospect coming out of DeMatha, he sat behind Kevin McLinton last year.

"He got beat up a lot in practice," Williams said, "and it was a shock. He had been on an undefeated national championship team as a junior. He was used to things going his way. But instead of pouting or transferring, he kept working. And then [when McLinton left] the job was his this year."

Although he started every game, averaged 11 points and 4.5 assists and had big games against North Carolina, Wake Forest and UMass, it wasn't always a happy year for him. He heard from Williams, pointedly, when his decision-making and patience were problematic. ("He's learning on the job," Williams said.) Such is the curse of the point guard's life.

Simpkins says his floor game is still a work in progress. "When I look at film, I can see the places where I should have done something else, made another pass or gotten the ball to the other side," he said. "But I'm learning every day. I've improved, but I've got a long way to go."

He has had other strong performances, but the Saint Louis game was by far the best evidence yet that his work is starting to pay off.

"It was my best floor game, for sure," he said. "I knew beforehand that I wasn't going to score much myself. With the size advantage we had inside, we had to get the ball in there."

After watching the film of the game, UMass coach John Calipari singled out Simpkins yesterday. "He has made big strides since we played [in December]," the coach said. "When your point guard is getting it together, your team tends to jell."

Simpkins expects to score more today, understandably: He put an 18-spot on UMass point guard Derek Kellogg when they played in December. "I think I can penetrate and get my shot," he said.

But the Terps don't win or lose with Simpkins' points. They are a relatively delicate operation that needs all parts functioning to win -- Exree Hipp's jumpers, Johnny Rhodes' all-floor game and KeithBooth's chin-first toughness, aside from Smith -- and that's up to Simpkins.

If anything, what is clear now is that they're all in the hands of a 19-year-old of uncommon resilience. He was grouped with Jason Kidd, Michael Lloyd, Greg Simpson and the nation's other top high school point guards two years ago, then didn't get to play. Earlier this year, there was talk that Lloyd would transfer to Maryland and take his job.

"It's been a little frustrating at times," he said. "But I use the doubts [of others] as motivation."

Said Williams: "I have a lot of respect for what Duane has done. He's a tough kid."

He will need every ounce of it against a UMass team that played such strong defense in the first round of the tournament that Southwest Texas State could barely get the ball over half-court and take a shot.

"It'll be a tough game for Duane, with their guards and pressure," Williams said. "But he has stood tall before in tough games."

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