Tournament is still Terps' trump card

March 15, 1996|By John Eisenberg

TEMPE, Ariz. - They are the class that began the rebirth of Maryland's basketball program, the rise from death, drugs and probation.

"We went from NCAA sanctions to back-to-back Sweet 16s," said Johnny Rhodes, speaking yesterday for the four seniors on this year's Terps team. "I think we'll be remembered as a class that accomplished a lot."

No doubt about it. Joe Smith got them to the Sweet 16, but Smith never would have gone to Maryland if Rhodes, Duane Simpkins and Exree Hipp hadn't gone first.

It is a fine legacy, already written in ink.

Yet their senior season has been anything but the victory tour they expected.

"It's been an up-and-down year, to say the least," Rhodes said.

Lost jobs. Missed shots. Parking tickets.

Those are just some of the sound bites that Hipp, Simpkins and Mario Lucas have produced as seniors.

Rhodes, alone among them, has had a graceful, senior-style season.

Otherwise, they have pretty much soiled the endings of their careers.

Yet, like magic, they can make it all go away beginning today.

In just a few days, they can right all the wrongs that have mounted up this year.

The Terps play Santa Clara in a first-round NCAA tournament game today at the University Activity Center. For those not aware, the NCAA tournament is among the most powerful redemptive forces in sports.

With a couple of wins, a team can turn a disappointing season into a success. Or, with an early loss, a success into a disappointment.

The Terps, winners of just five of 16 games against the other 63 teams invited to the tournament, are definitely looking to trade up.

They were picked to win the ACC regular-season title, but they finished tied for fourth.

They were ranked when the season began, but they haven't graced the Top 25 since December.

Get the picture?

Yet, with a win today, followed by an upset of Kansas in the second round Sunday, the Terps would go from disappointing to dazzling.

It is that simple. And that difficult.

"I think we can do it," Rhodes said. "With our depth and experience, we can go farther than we did the last two years. I like our bracket. I like our chances against the teams we play."

Two wins are a long shot, but history points to at least one. Terps teams have never lost their first game in the NCAA tournament, building a 12-0 record dating back to 1958. And coach Gary Williams is 5-0 in first-round games dating back to his days at Boston College.

Santa Clara is a viable opponent that beat UCLA and Georgia Tech early in the season, but upsets in November and December mean nothing in March.

The Terps are superior, and they know it.

"I figure they're going to have trouble handling our pressure," Hipp said.

Hipp, of course, has been the biggest disappointment of all. He figured to be a major cornerstone in his fourth year as a starter, but he has averaged just seven points a game, barely half his career average.

He didn't score in the Terps' loss to Georgia Tech in the ACC tournament semifinals.

Dick Vitale put it best on the broadcast of the Maryland-Missouri game last month: "Gary [Williams] not only lost Joe Smith, he lost Exree Hipp."

Today, Hipp probably will guard Santa Clara's star guard, Steve Nash.

One final chance to make something out of his season.

Lucas hasn't fallen quite as short, mostly because not as much was expected. But his season, too, has been as quiet as a soft breeze.

He was penciled in to replace Joe Smith at center, and though that obviously was asking too much, Lucas quickly ceded the starting job to raw freshman Obinna Ekezie.

Simpkins? He has played well at times, averaged 12 points, led the team in assists, made some big baskets. But his suspension last month for improperly repaying part of $8,000 in campus parking violations was hardly an example of senior leadership.

Only Rhodes has delivered as a senior should from the first dribble. He leads the team in scoring and steals, and, as he has throughout his career, consistently performed the dirty detail work that other players shun.

If the other three seniors had delivered as faithfully, the Terps would have won 20 games.

There is little doubt that two factions have formed on the team through all this, a young faction and a senior faction, the past and the future. Freshman guard Terrell Stokes was asked last week why the team had suffered so many early blowouts.

"Don't ask me, ask the seniors," he said.

Stokes backtracked from that statement when pressed yesterday, but a "situation" obviously exists.

It has been that kind of a season for the Terps.

For the seniors.

Today, they try to redefine their season. Give the end of their careers a better face.

"Any time it's your last shot in the tournament," Williams said, "you want to do well. I know our seniors do."

Pub Date: 3/15/96

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