Fresh Out Of Luck No More

March 22, 1994|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Sun Staff Writer

COLLEGE PARK — They had to deal with frustration, from losing more than any of them had ever been accustomed to or playing less than a couple of them could even have imagined.

They had to deal with jealousy, from older teammates who waited their turn for the spotlight, only to see a bunch of freshmen sharing the cover of the team's press guide.

They had to deal with hype, from coaches who overstated their talents, to media who believed the coaches, and to fans who then expected them to make an immediate impact in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

And, on top of everything else, they had to deal with the transition that most players go through in their first year in college. For last year's freshman class on the Maryland basketball team, the problems were multiplied tenfold.

"It was a very tough situation for everybody," Johnny Rhodes recalled yesterday.

Rhodes, who was compared to former Maryland All-America John Lucas before he ever took a jump shot, struggled to make one for long stretches. Duane Simpkins and Mario Lucas struggled just to get off the bench. And Exree Hipp, who had the best year of any of them, struggled with all the losses.

If Michigan's freshman class of two years ago was the Fab Five, Maryland's freshman class of last season was the Fabricated Five.

But it became the foundation for this season's 18-11 team that is now, suddenly and inexplicably, getting ready to play the third-seeded Wolverines (23-7) in Friday's NCAA Midwest Regional semifinals at Reunion Arena in Dallas.

"Getting those guys was a very positive thing for our program," said Maryland coach Gary Williams. "We were in a big void talent-wise because of the NCAA sanctions. But they helped us get players like Keith Booth and Joe Smith. And Exree and Johnny got more minutes than any freshmen in the ACC. And they learned they could help this year's freshmen become part of the team. That's been the key to our success."

But there were more than a few bumps along the way.

Hipp, who had lost only two games in three years at Harker Prep, remembered what it was like when the Terps saw a promising 10-5 start unravel quickly with a seven-game losing streak. Maryland would finish 13-16, with its only three ACC wins over last-place North Carolina State.

"We could get no lower," the 6-foot-8 forward said of the losing streak, which began shortly after the Terps had upset then-12th-ranked Oklahoma at the Baltimore Arena. "You were on your knees praying for a win. There were days you dreaded going to practice."

Rhodes, who had been called the country's best guard coming out of Maine Central Institute, had some good early games and then saw his shooting touch disappear -- until the middle of this season. There were some who questioned Maryland's assessment of the 6-5 Rhodes, which included assistant coach Art Perry comparing him favorably with ex-star Walt Williams.

"I think Johnny felt the pressure the most," Perry said yesterday. "He was the recruit everyone focused on. I think Johnny will do better with pressure as he gets older, but he doesn't do well with pressure. I think that showed against UMass Saturday. He can go out and have a great game and still be inconspicuous."

Simpkins, a 6-foot point guard, and Lucas, a 6-8 forward, were inconspicuous last season, almost to the point of being invisible. Simpkins, the first of the group to sign during their respective senior years, spent all but the last two weeks of the season playing behind workhorse senior Kevin McLinton. Lucas never got out of Evers Burns' shadow. Both seriously considered transferring.

But unlike center Nemanja Petrovic, who quit the team before this season and transferred to St. Joseph's after getting to play against Smith in practice, Simpkins and Lucas stuck it out. For Simpkins, it took Rhodes telling him, "C'mon, man, this is going to be your show next year." For Lucas, it took his father telling him, "I let you choose the school, you're not going to back out after one year."

And then there was the flap over the press guide. It was a way for the team to market its future, but it proved a major headache for Williams. While he didn't have to worry about juggling lineups -- the same group started all but one game -- he did have to soothe some fragile egos.

"It was just the cover of the press guide, and it didn't seem like a bigdeal at the time, but some people didn't handle it as well as they could have," said Williams.

Not that becoming sophomores meant the end of their troubles. Rhodes continued to have problems with his outside shot until mid-February, missing 18 straight threes in one stretch. Simpkins hit the game-winning shot to start the season against Georgetown, but saw his game sag until hearing that former Dunbar star Michael Lloyd was coming to Maryland. Hipp had some sensational games early, but slumped toward the end of the ACC season. Lucas was either unconscious shooting, or unconscionable.

Somehow, it all came together last weekend in Wichita. Rhodes showed why he is one of the most versatile guards in the country, nearly getting a triple-double in Saturday's 95-87 upset of second-seeded, eighth-ranked Massachusetts. Simpkins had a career-high 11 assists in an opening-round win over Saint Louis, then had a career-high 20 points against the Minutemen. Hipp took over the second half in each victory. And Lucas hit the biggest shot of the season, a three-pointer against UMass that started Maryland's stunning comeback.

"We all played like we're capable of playing," said Rhodes.

Fabricated Five, no more. Maryland's freshman class of a year ago -- minus one -- is now very much for real.

MICHIGAN vs. MARYLAND

. MIDWEST REGIONAL SEMIFINAL * Day: Friday

Time: 10:30 p.m. (approx.)

* Site: Reunion Arena, Dallas

* Seedings: Michigan No. 3, Maryland No. 10

Records: Michigan 23-7, Maryland 18-11

* TV: Channels 11, 9

* Radio: WBAL (1090 AM)

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