Oklahoma City -- They were the showpieces of Maryland's best class of basketball recruits in two decades, their faces adorning the cover of the team's press guide, their promise bringing undue pressure in the form of inflated expectations.
As freshmen a year ago, they struggled in different roles for large portions of a disappointing 12-16 season. As starters, Johnny Rhodes and Exree Hipp tried to mold their blue-chip talents in with three blue-collar seniors. As an often overlooked reserve, Duane Simpkins just tried to fit in.
But if there was one game last season when it all came together for the Terrapins, it was during their 89-78 upset over then 12th-ranked Oklahoma at the Baltimore Arena.
"It was one of those nights when we played really well," Maryland coach Gary Williams said yesterday. "We played really good defense. I don't know if it was the best game we played, but it's the best game we won."
Said Simpkins: "It was a big confidence boost."
Flash ahead to tonight's nationally televised rematch with the Sooners (2-1) at the Myriad. Maryland's blue-collar seniors are gone, replaced by two more blue-chip freshmen, Joe Smith and Keith Booth, and Simpkins. The Terps (5-0) are on a roll, having beaten then-No. 15 Georgetown in the season opener on the way to their best start in three years.
Suddenly, the three sophomores are the players Maryland is looking to for leadership. While Hipp and Rhodes have shown themselves to be more consistent, and sometimes spectacular, Simpkins still is struggling with his transition, this time as the team's starting point guard.
"Deep down inside, I know what I'm capable of doing, and those people who know me and know basketball believe I can do the job," said Simpkins. "I'm not the kind of player who's going to score a lot of points, or get a lot of assists, but I think I can be a pretty good leader out there."
A season that began with Simpkins hitting the game-winning shot in overtime against the Hoyas has come hurtling back to reality. Simpkins has played erratically, and it has raised concerns that the Terps might need to look at different options as they approach the Atlantic Coast Conference season.
Simpkins, averaging 6.8 points, admittedly has yet to prove he can hit his outside shot (0-for-7 on threes, 13 of 32 overall). He also needs to improve his assist-to-turnover ratio (16 to 12) and stay out of foul trouble, having fouled out in only 18 minutes against Morgan State.
But Williams is not making any changes -- yet.
"I'd like to see Duane play more games," Williams said of the 6-foot-1, 170-pound guard from DeMatha. "It's only fair, because Ex and Johnny played a lot last year and Duane didn't. You can't really compare Duane to those guys just because they're sophomores. He's learning on the job."
While there are still questions surrounding Simpkins, Rhodes has quieted the critics who wondered whether the former high school and prep school phenom was going to make the jump to major college basketball. Williams has long contended that the only thing Rhodes didn't do well as a freshman was shoot, and the 6-4 guard has made some subtle changes in his game this season.
"I think I had a pretty good freshman year," said Rhodes, who averaged 14 points, set a single-season school record for steals (71) and might have been the ACC's top freshman had he not shot 42 percent from the field. "But I look back and know I could have done things differently, like going to the hole [basket] more."
Rhodes still is having problems with his outside shot -- he is only 5-for-18 on threes -- but the rest of his game has improved dramatically. The statistic that jumps out isn't his scoring average (a respectable 14.0), but his 7.8 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 3.8 steals. He also has improved his free-throw shooting.
"The points are just extra for me with Johnny," said Williams. "He's always been there with the steals. He's just getting to the basket better. That's part of his development. He sees that if he goes to the basket, he's going to get rebounds and he's going to get fouled. I think teams are playing him more honestly, so that helps his outside shot."
And then there is Hipp, a 6-7, 180-pound forward. Perhaps the most physically talented in last year's freshman class (which also included reserve forward Mario Lucas and former backup center Nemanja Petrovic), Hipp has learned he can't get by solely on his jumping ability.
After scoring nine points and fouling out vs. Georgetown, Hipp has put up impressive numbers, scoring in double figures the past four games and a career-high 25 against Cornell. Hipp is second behind Smith in scoring (17.4) and, among the starters, in field-goal percentage.
"The biggest thing with Ex is that he's getting open in the half-court offense," said Williams. "Last year he had to score in transition."
Said Hipp: "I think we're more relaxed. We're letting it come to us. We're not forcing things."
One more thing: they're winning.