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Back From the Depths
Jack McCallum
February 20, 1995
Maryland is an ACC power once again, ending a decline that began with Len Bias's death
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February 20, 1995

Back From The Depths

Maryland is an ACC power once again, ending a decline that began with Len Bias's death

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Maryland was being investigated when Williams accepted the job, but the intelligence he received was that the penalties were going to be light. But when the hammer fell late in his first season, it was anything but a glancing blow: three years' probation, no postseason play for two years and no live television for one season. The Maryland athletic department is still about $7 million in debt largely because of revenue lost due to the sanctions.

Williams went to work mending fences, particularly with the faculty, which had lost confidence in the basketball program. And he devised a recruiting strategy that centered on high school underclassmen, who would come in after the worst of the sanctions expired. Fortunately for him, he found a few good ones with testudinate instincts. Hipp, Rhodes and Simpkins, scholastic stars in the Baltimore-Washington area, made an unofficial pact to go to Maryland and make some basketball history. Rhodes, who was a year ahead of the others, had to take a detour when weak college-entrance exam scores forced him to spend a postgrad year at Maine Central Institute. But true to his word, he joined his pals at College Park in the fall of 1992.

While Rhodes's decision was pragmatic—"I wanted to play with those guys, and I got tired of seeing all the local talent go everywhere else," he says—Hipp and Simpkins definitely felt the tug of Bias's legacy and the old Maryland magic. Hipp, in fact, says he "goes all the way back with Maryland," and before nature added six inches to his skinny frame in one year, he dreamed of playing free safety at College Park. (One suspects that the proximity of his mother's home cooking had much to do with his choice, too: He makes the 15-minute drive home to southeast Washington almost every day to devour pork chops, macaroni and cheese, and mashed potatoes whipped up by his mother, Albertha.)

Things didn't go smoothly at first. The Terps went 12-16 and won only two games in the ACC in the first Hipp-Rhodes-Simpkins season. No one was happy, least of all the sporadically used Simpkins. But Williams's dogged recruiting continued to pay off. When Booth, an All-America from Dunbar High, signed on, he became the first Baltimore star in over a decade to come to Maryland. There was much bad feeling about College Park in the halls of Dunbar—another highly touted alum, Ernest Graham, had not lived up to his potential under Driesell in the early 1980s, and Wade had made his reputation at Dunbar before Maryland hired him and then cut him loose.

"I heard it all," says Booth. " 'Maryland messed up Ernest Graham.' 'Maryland screwed Bob Wade.' I got letters, phone calls, people hollering at me on the street when I was getting on a bus. People at work would tell my mother, 'Don't let your boy go to Maryland.' It didn't make any difference to me. At some point you've got to forget the past. My philosophy is that everything good begins with the coach, and I wanted to come play for Gary Williams. Plus I wanted to help make something positive out of what happened to Len Bias, to continue his legacy on the basketball court." Booth still has a video cassette of Bias highlights that he slips into his VCR every now and then.

The Terps got really lucky when they signed the man Rhodes calls "that great big gift from God." Absolutely no one knew how good a college player Smith was going to be, including Dean Smith, who could have had him at North Carolina. Joe grew up worshiping the Tar Heels. "I even bugged my mom until she bought me one of those $70 Carolina jackets," he says. But Williams came after him first and hardest, and Smith made that effort pay off in his first college game, when he had 26 points and nine rebounds in a nationally televised 84-83 overtime win against Georgetown. Since then, he has been one extraordinary Joe. It's just as well he didn't go to North Carolina. The NCAA might have had to pass a special rule banning a frontcourt of Smith, Stackhouse and Wallace.

Both Smith and Booth were regulars as freshmen and, along with Hipp, Rhodes and Simpkins, they now provide the Terps with a starting five that has a lot of experience playing together. If Smith decides to ignore the NBA and stay at Maryland another year, just think how good the Terrapins will be. "We know, we know," says Rhodes. "We remind Joe of that from time to time."

There are still questions about this year's Terps, however. Hipp is sometimes a little, shall we say, bold in his shot selection; perhaps that's to be expected from someone whose first name means Little Brave. (His father is a full-blooded Cherokee.) Booth, a muscular inside player, sometimes forgets he's not a point guard and forces far too many passes (he leads Maryland with 71 turnovers). "I think Joe picked up some toughness from me," says Booth. "What I need to pick up from him is how to be tough and smart." Simpkins is a volatile floor leader whose emotions sometimes get away from him. After he played poorly in the loss to UMass, he was nearly inconsolable in the locker room. The next day he was late for practice, and he later hinted to The Washington Post that he had considered quitting.

Anyway, there were few Maryland weaknesses evident against Carolina or in the dangerous follow-up game against the Seminoles. The Terps are back, and so are raucous sold-out crowds at Cole (dubbed Garyland by the student section) that include fans like pundit Robert Novak and Terrapin legends Len Elmore and Tom McMillen, a former U.S. congressman. "Once in a while I say to myself, 'Is this really happening?' " says Hipp.

It doesn't surprise Booth. "It sounds crazy," he says, "but I had a vision of all this. Coach Williams calling the shots, all of us playing together, the fans, the excitement. A little more work, and we can make that vision complete. Then people will only associate Maryland with the good things."

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