COLLEGE PARK -- If this is the end, Duane Simpkins doesn't want to hear it.
"People say, 'Your career is about to end,' " Maryland's senior point guard was saying yesterday. "But in my estimation, we still have quite a few games to play."
That depends on whether the Terps beat Florida State tonight at Cole Field House.
This is a game that marks the end of the Atlantic Coast Conference regular season and signals the end of an era.
Four years after Simpkins, Exree Hipp, Mario Lucas and Johnny Rhodes arrived to revive Maryland's moribund program, it's time to take a curtain call. Each senior will receive a plaque in a brief ceremony before what figures to be their final home game.
"It will be very emotional," coach Gary Williams said. "We've been through a lot the last four years. There were a lot of great times. There's no guarantee you ever get back to the Sweet 16."
If the Terps (15-11, 7-8) win, they gain the fifth seed in the ACC tournament in Greensboro, N.C., and a return match with Duke on Friday. If they lose to Florida State (13-12, 5-10), they get the sixth seed and an opening-round game against North Carolina.
Maryland reached the NCAA's Sweet 16 each of the past two seasons behind Joe Smith, but this season has struggled. Williams said he thinks a 16th win tonight would sew up an NCAA bid; some think the Terps need to win at least one game in the ACC tourney this weekend as well.
How did it come to this, the most experienced team in the ACC needing to win its final game just to get a bid?
Hipp traces the Terps' problems to the transition from a Smith-led team to a guard-oriented team.
"Sometimes, when everybody tries to step up at once, it can mess up the system a little bit," Hipp said. "I thought, early in the year, we were still running the same schemes and plays as when Joe was here. We didn't have that dominant big man to be running plays like we ran for Joe Smith.
"That changed a little as the season went on. People started checking their roles. I know I'm a defensive stopper; that's what I need to do for the team. We found each individual's identity.
"Right now, the chemistry is blending at the right time. I think definitely if we can get in the NCAA tournament. We're going to do some damage because obviously we're playing a lot better as a unit."
Hipp, a four-year starter, has been in the eye of a storm all year.
He started the season with knee and ankle injuries, fell into a slump, missed one game with an academic-related suspension, lost his starting job for one game and, in early February, complained publicly about playing time.
Yesterday, Hipp characterized those problems as a "coming of age," and said he has objected to some of the things Williams has said.
"We're grown men now. We're not 17 or 18 like when we first came to Maryland," Hipp said.
"He's getting paid for doing this. We're not getting paid for doing this. So we still can voice our opinions on how we feel. Everybody's human, they err. Coach Williams errs just like anybody else, and sometimes we want to voice our opinion about the way we feel."
Rhodes doesn't take issue with Williams' sometimes-critical remarks. "Everything is for a reason," Rhodes said. "He says things to you, but only for the better. We're men, and it's good to have those discussions."
Williams said he's merely trying to motivate his players in a season of huge peaks and valleys.
"I don't think there's any problems with our relationship," he said. "I've tried to drive these guys. We lost three games in December against Kentucky, UCLA and Massachusetts that were hard. We went through the rest of December and won those games. Here we come into the ACC and go 0-3."
"This is hard to keep guys focused. I can name teams that quit in those situations. These guys never quit."
If the Terps beat Florida State, the seniors have a chance to go out on their terms. "I just want to get in the tourney again," Rhodes said. "If we get in, we'll surprise a lot of teams again."
And if they don't, count Hipp among those who would prefer not to make a National Invitation Tournament exit.
"That's something we'd have to sit down and talk about as a team," Hipp said. "I think Coach would love to continue playing, but I don't know. I'd rather, personally, not get anything than go to the NIT."