GREENBORO, N.C. — GREENSBORO, N.C. -- In recent years, Maryland would send its basketball coach and a couple of selected players to the Atlantic Coast Conference's preseason media day because they had to fulfill an obligation. Not that anyone noticed.
Yesterday, Gary Williams and his players -- sophomore center Joe Smith and junior guard Duane Simpkins -- got plenty of attention at the Greensboro Coliseum during the ACC's annual Operation Basketball. And loads of respect.
The Terrapins, considered by many to be a top 10 team heading into the 1994-95 season, finished behind only North Carolina in the projected league standings. And Smith, a near-consensus preseason All-American, finished behind only Wake Forest senior Randolph Childress as the league's Player of the Year candidate.
It was the highest Maryland had been selected by the ACC media since the 1983-84 team was picked second behind the Tar Heels, finished there and wound up winning the ACC tournament. It marks the first time the Terrapins were selected higher than seventh since the 1987-88 team was picked fifth.
But considering the hype that has followed Maryland since past season's Sweet 16 finish, it did not come as a surprise.
"It's been this way the whole fall, probably since the NCAA tournament," said Williams.
Asked how difficult it has been for his players not to get caught up in the hoopla, Williams said: "It's been hard. As a coach, I look at things differently. We were a .500 team in the ACC last season, and until we prove we're better than that, I'm not going to get too excited. We were picked seventh or eighth last year, and we didn't buy into that."
Said Simpkins: "To be honest, I didn't think this would come so soon. I thought, by my junior year, we'd be laying the foundation for the future, and then, by my senior year, we'd be getting some attention nationally."
Consider how far and how fast the Terps have come and what exclusive company they're now in: This marks the first time since 1987 that a team other than North Carolina or Duke was picked to finish among the top two. It's also the biggest jump a team has made from one year to the next since Maryland was picked first going into 1980-81 after being picked sixth and winning the ACC regular-season title in 1979-80.
"Most teams improve gradually, and then they get picked high," said Williams, whose previous Maryland teams were picked eighth three times and seventh twice. "At our place, we were so far back, and, all of a sudden, we became good. Not many teams have made that kind of jump."
Maryland's rise in the preseason standings comes when the ACC is widely viewed as the best league in the country, with as many as seven Top 25 teams, according to some publications. Even North Carolina coach Dean Smith said: "It's the best I've seen top to bottom."
Asked about Maryland's quantum leap, Virginia coach Jeff Jones said: "It shows the potential of any school in the league. Being in the ACC provides a forum, and it shows that a rebuilding job doesn't take that long."
Meanwhile, the remarkable comeback of Clemson star Devin Gray took a slight detour recently. The senior forward from Baltimore, who suffered a heart attack April 4 but was recently cleared to play this season, sprained his right ankle Oct. 22. He is expected to return to practice tomorrow.
'It's the same ankle I hurt last year," said Gray. "But it's only an ankle."
Two other former local high school stars have begun their college careers in the ACC. Norman Nolan (Dunbar) of Virginia and Steve Wojciechowski (Cardinal Gibbons) of Duke have gotten off slowly, as if often the case with freshmen.
Nolan's problem is conditioning. "He's a better offensive player than I thought he'd be. He's not doing a lot of crazy things," said Jones. "It makes me wonder what kind of player he'd be if he gets in shape."
As for Wojciechowski, his biggest problem will be getting playing time in Duke's crowded backcourt. Incumbent point guard Jeff Capel received academic clearance last week to start the season, and the Blue Devils will have senior Kenny Blakeney returning after being academically ineligible past season.
Wojciechowski could get early playing time while shooting guard Chris Collins recovers from a broken foot, with Trajan Langdon likely to move to the off-guard spot. Langdon, one of the most highly recruited high school players in the country, finished second to Florida State's Corey Louis among those receiving votes for the ACC's top freshman.
"It's obvious right now that Jeff's got the experience and maturity to be at the point-guard position," said assistant coach Pete Gaudet, who attended yesterday's meeting while Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski recovers from back surgery. "And in Trajan Langdon, we have a special player who has a lot of poise."
ACC MEN'S POLL
The Atlantic Coast Conference men's basketball preseason poll, as voted by media covering the league:
Team (1st place) .. .. .. .. Points
1. North Carolina (70) ... .. .. 827
Maryland (14) ... .. .. .. .. 701
3. Duke (7) .. .. .. .. .. .. .. 675
4. Virginia (6) . .. .. .. .. .. 641
5. Wake Forest . .. ... .. .. .. 489
6. Georgia Tech . .. .. .. .. .. 411
7. Florida State ... .. .. .. .. 305
8. N.C. State ... .. .. .. .. .. 210
9. Clemson ... .. .. .. .. .. .. 106
Where Maryland was picked in the ACC preseason and where
it finished over the past 10 years:
Season .. .. .. Pick .. .. .. Finish
1983-84 . .. .. 2nd ... .. .. 2nd
1984-85 . .. .. T4th .. .. .. 5th
1985-86 . .. .. 5th ... .. .. 6th
1986-87 . .. .. 8th ... .. .. 8th
1987-88 . .. .. 5th ... .. .. 5th
1988-89 . .. .. 8th ... .. .. 8th
1989-90 . .. .. 8th ... .. .. T5th
1990-91 . .. .. 8th ... .. .. 7th
1991-92 . .. .. 7th ... .. .. 8th
1992-93 . .. .. 7th ... .. .. T8th
1993-94 . .. .. 8th ... .. .. T4th