When the Maryland basketball team began its season, there was a new sense of confidence surrounding Duane Simpkins. XTC Not only from within the junior point guard, but from those around him as well.
From his teammates and coaches who had watched Simpkins become perhaps the Atlantic Coast Conference's most improved player last season. From opponents and media types who seemed surprised at the way Simpkins played in many big games for the Terrapins.
"I think Duane proved last year that he was a solid ACC point guard," Maryland coach Gary Williams said recently.
Yet after playing so well as a sophomore, Simpkins seemed to take a step backward in the first month of the 1994-95 season. Except for a 20-point outing against Utah in the Maui Invitational, Simpkins was a disappointment.
Not only in the team's losses to Arizona State and Massachusetts, but also in many of its wins against lesser teams. It raised concerns whether Simpkins had taken his blue-collar talent as far as he could and was reaching a plateau.
"For whatever reason, those games where we're supposed to win, I kind of go through the motions," Simpkins said last week. "I'm the type of player that plays better against better teams, like UMass or Georgia Tech."
Simpkins will have that opportunity tonight, when seventh-ranked Maryland (10-2) plays host to No. 24 Georgia Tech (8-2) in the ACC opener for both. It will be another chance to put last month's nightmarish performance against Massachusetts behind him.
After playing well against the Minutemen twice last season -- during a regular-season loss and in his team's upset victory in the second round of the NCAA tournament -- Simpkins had one of his worst games: a three-point, five-turnover disaster in an 85-74 loss to the Minutemen on Dec. 10 at the Baltimore Arena.
It led to an emotional outburst, first in the dressing room after the game and in his dormitory later on. The next day, Simpkins reportedly was late to a team meeting. He didn't start -- or play well -- during a 14-minute stint against Towson State two days later.
"If I had to do things differently, I would," said Simpkins, who wouldn't say whether he had missed practice entirely the day after the Massachusetts game. "I learned a lot from it. From the game, I learned who's behind me and who's not. It put basketball in perspective. It's just a game. I'm not going to put it in front of my family or my friends or getting a degree."
Teammate Keith Booth said he brought Simpkins out of his funk with a little humor. When he got back to their dorm after the Massachusetts game, the sophomore forward sought out Simpkins.
"I asked, 'When did you get out of the closet?' " Booth said, referring to where Simpkins went in the dressing room after starting to lose control of his emotions. "I think he knows that it was just one game."
Simpkins has shown in the past week some of the same traits he exhibited last season. A year ago, it was his 18-point, six-assist, six-rebound performance against Georgia Tech in Atlanta that helped quiet the whispers that he was in over his head.
"It was big for me offensively," said Simpkins, who wound up averaging more than 13 points in the ACC last season. "People didn't think I could do that in the ACC, especially against a guy like Travis Best."
Of Simpkins' recent stretch of games, which included hitting four of seven three-point attempts in a 16-point performance against American last Friday, Williams said: "I think he's played a lot better. He's been more aggressive. When he's not playing well, it's a very passive game."
In the past three games, Simpkins has looked to take the outside shot. He also has been more assertive in setting up the offense and defense. But the competition will improve dramatically, starting tonight against the league's top guard in Best.
One more thing: Though he once told former Maryland assistant Sherman Dillard that he hoped to be "the next Kenny Anderson" coming out of DeMatha High, Simpkins long since has learned his limitations.
"Since I've been here, I've never claimed to be a great player," said Simpkins, who's averaging 10 points and nearly five assists. "I always thought of myself as a player who did a lot of things well. As a point guard, it [the pressure] kind of wears on you. I've been through it before. People will say this and that. I'm a solid player, and that's that."
That's all Maryland needs Simpkins to be this year.
Maryland junior point guard Duane Simpkins' game-by-game statistics for 1994:
Opponent ... ... ... Ast. ... TO ... Stl. ... Pts.
Chaminade .. ... ... 5 ... .. 1 .. .. 1 .. .. 3
Utah ... ... ... ... 3 ... .. 1 .. .. 1 .. .. 20
Arizona State .. ... 8 ... .. 6 .. .. 0 .. .. 8
Loyola ... ... .. .. 5 ... .. 4 .. .. 2 .. .. 10
Bucknell ... ... ... 6 .. ... 4 .. .. 2 .. .. 13
UMBC ... ... ... ... 6 ... .. 4 .. .. 3 .. .. 7
Colgate .. .. .. ... 5 ... .. 2 .. .. 2 .. .. 12
UMass ... ... .. ... 4 ... .. 5 .. .. 0 .. .. 3
Towson State ... ... 0 ... .. 3 .. .. 1 .. .. 4
Morgan State ... ... 11 .. .. 2 .. .. 1 .. .. 8
La Salle ... ... ... 4 ... .. 3 .. .. 2 .. .. 14
American ... ... ... 5 ... .. 2 .. .. 0 .. .. 16
Averages ... ... ... 4.9 .. .. 2.9 .. 1.5 ... 10.0
No. 24 GEORGIA TECH (8-3) at No. 7 MARYLAND (10-2)
Site: Cole Field House, College Park
Radio: WBAL (1090 AM)
Tickets: 1,100 available
Outlook: The Terps are back to where they began the season in the polls. Maryland has only beaten Georgia Tech twice in 10 games since Gary Williams arrived, and lost to the Yellow Jackets in College Park last season. Georgia Tech doesn't have anyone to match up with Joe Smith (20.5 ppg., 9.2 rpg, 3.0 bpg), but the Terps have had problems slowing down James Forrest (21.5 ppg, 7.5 rpg). The difference could be in the backcourt, with the matchups of Johnny Rhodes (15.1 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 3.4 spg) and Duane Simpkins (10.0 ppg) vs. Travis Best (18.5 ppg) and Drew Barry (15.3 ppg, 23 of 39 on three-point attempts). Maryland is leading the ACC in scoring (100.8 ppg) but is last in field-goal defense (43.5 percent). Another important factor will be the bench play, with Maryland's Mario Lucas (9.1 ppg) and Georgia Tech freshman Michael Maddox (11.0 ppg) giving their teams good production. Maryland plays its next two games on the road, including Saturday at North Carolina.