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Can Hipp shoulder heavier load? THE TERPS' EX-FACTOR


College Park -- He has been extraordinary on more than one occasion, most recently in last season's NCAA tournament victories over Saint Louis and Massachusetts. His second-half performance against the Billikens drove their athletic director to scurry for her program.

"I kept asking everyone, 'Who is Exree Hipp?' " said Debbie Yow, who is now in the same job at Maryland.

He also has been, more than a few times during his first two years as a Terrapin, a little bit exasperating, a case of unfulfilled potential. There have been nights when, after starting out in a blaze of three-point shots and thunderous dunks, the fire would be quickly extinguished.

It would lead many to ask, "Where is Exree Hipp?"

Going into his junior season, which begins unofficially tonight at 8 with an exhibition game against the Polish National Team and officially Nov. 21 against Chaminade in the Maui Invitational, Hipp is trying to find a happy medium between his bursts of dominance and those other stretches of dormancy. He could be the difference if a suddenly prominent team is to live up to its hype.

Call him Maryland's Ex-factor.

"A lot of my better scoring games last year came against the weaker teams," said Hipp, whose 13.2 scoring average -- second only to Joe Smith -- was helped by a career-high, 35-point performance against Towson State, as well as 25 against Cornell and 21 against UMBC. "I just want to concentrate on being more consistent."

To that end, the skinny, 6-foot-8 forward spent the spring, summer and early fall not only working on his game, but also his frame. In what is often second nature for most college students, but not for him, Hipp's focus during the off-season was food. The higher the calories the better. Morning, noon and mostly at night.

"I started eating four times a day," Hipp said before practice one afternoon last week, a bag filled with fast food at his feet. "I was also doing a lot of weightlifting. From lifting weights, I was hungry all the time. I noticed that I was gaining 5 pounds here, then 10 pounds. It was hard, because nobody in my family is really heavy."

The results have been startling. Hipp, who barely weighed 170 pounds as a freshman out of Harker Prep three years ago and played last season at 183, has gained 20 to 25 pounds since the end of last season.

It has enabled Hipp to reach his stated goal of 208 pounds, though he has dropped a few since the start of practice three weeks ago. Hipp's prediction about his weight was made in Dallas after Maryland ended last season with a 78-71 loss to Michigan in the Sweet 16.

"Honestly, I thought I was pushing it a little too much," he said. "My father weighs 185, and he's 50 years old. I thought I would come in at 200 and play around 195."

Even that seemed as far-fetched as saying the Terps would win "around 18 games, finish .500 in the ACC, make the tournament and sneak into the Sweet 16."

That is exactly what Hipp told a disbelieving reporter days before the 1993-94 season began. (Hipp later pointed at the same skeptic during the final seconds of the Massachusetts upset, saying, "I told you so.")

"This year, I want to take every game one win at a time," said Hipp. "If we keep winning, we'll get to where I think we can. We don't need any added pressure on us. We already have enough here. Last year, I went out on a limb. But it was fun watching it happen."

For Maryland to get where Hipp and the Terps want -- dare they say Seattle and the Final Four? -- coach Gary Williams needs more consistency from a player who has started all 58 games since coming to Maryland and is eight short of breaking Adrian Branch's school record for consecutive starts to begin a career.

And Williams doesn't just mean putting up double figures. "We need a consistent defensive effort," said Williams, who has more options on the bench this season if Hipp disappears.

"Like a lot of players, Ex is OK on the ball. But at this level, team defense is more important. That's where a lot of guys have to change. But he's had two years in our system. I expect him to be a good defensive player. He played better toward the end of last season."

"Me and my dad talked about it this summer," said the younger Hipp. "Every game that I came out fired up for, things fell in sync. The games that I got more or less shoved around early, things didn't go too well the rest of the night."

But the added weight and muscle not only has changed Hipp's profile, but his overall game.

He is more apt to drive to the basket than during his first two seasons, and mix it up for offensive rebounds when he misses. Williams also has noticed that Hipp has gotten his hands on more loose balls than before, and seems to have a much better grasp of a game he has been playing since the 10th grade.

"He's a lot more aggressive," said Williams, who was frustrated by Hipp's play at times last season. "The biggest change I've seen is his ability to pass. He seems to be able to see the court a lot better, and he understands that with these guys, if he gives the ball up, there's a good chance he'll get it back if he's open for a better shot."

Said Hipp: "I worked on a lot of things this summer, but putting on the weight has really helped. You don't have to shy away from contact. I just feel more confident."

Exuding it, in fact.

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