Lonny Baxter, Byron Mouton have high praise for Maryland Terps

Lonny Baxter, Byron Mouton have high praise for Maryland Terps

Over the past few seasons, the talk around the DMV in regards to the Maryland Terrapins has been an abundance of criticism, frustration and disappointment. It seemed as though Maryland basketball as a whole had lost its luster. Even the Xfinity Center wasn't the same — it was no longer an electric atmosphere. 

Many will attempt to attribute the decrease in fan attendance and overall participation to COVID, but those in the know will tell you that that’s not 100% accurate. The fact of the matter is: while the Xfinity Center was once one of the BIG 10's most difficult arenas for opposing teams to play in, it had lost its sizzle. 

However, Friday night was a return to the good ol' days, as a sold-out Xfinity Center was buzzing with an atmosphere usually seen during March Madness. No. 22 Maryland beat No. 16 Illinois 71-66, bringing their record to 8-0. This was the first big home game of the Kevin Willard era and possibly the biggest home game since the pandemic. The student section was rocking, the band was playing, and there was a sea of fans dressed in gold for the annual “gold rush” game. This atmosphere was exactly what many Maryland fans had been longing for.

I caught up with Lonny Baxter and Byron Mouton — two members of the 2001-02 Maryland championship team — to get their thoughts on their alma mater’s red-hot start, which has the entire DMV buzzing. 

Etan Thomas: Your team is looking good. They've started off 8-0 and got a really nice win last night against a good Illinois team. How does it feel, seeing how Maryland is playing right now? 

Lonny Baxter: "Oh man, I’m super proud. We’ve had some up-and-down years over the past few years. And to see this team — which is technically a 'rebuild team' — doing as well as they are, I think we are surprising a lot of people who weren’t expecting much from us this season. But we are opening a lot of people’s eyes. Coach Willard has come in and done a tremendous job right from the jump. We’re really looking good right now."

Thomas: You mentioned Coach Willard, and there was initially some skepticism when he was hired — talk of him not technically being from within the Maryland program, etc. But immediately upon arrival, he made it clear that he was going to have an emphasis on local DMV players, which has been a criticism of Maryland for quite some time now, as you know. He had three high recruits right from the DMV: Jamie Kaiser, DeShawn Harris-Smith and Jahnathan Lamothe. And the point guard from the transfer portal, Jahmir Young, is from the DMV as well. How much has he shifted the narrative locally with this start? 

Baxter: "Not only that, he also hired two great assistants from the DMV who are both good friends of mine: David Cox and Tony Skinn. They know the area, they have relationships locally whether it’s high schools or AAU programs, and they are doing a great job of changing that very narrative you were talking about. David Cox had me come up to the school and showed me around, introduced me to all the guys, told them the history of this program (which I am blessed to be a part of) and really made an effort to connect everything to the community, and that’s what we need."

Thomas: I hear a lot of announcers refer to the culture that Coach Willard has created here from the beginning. You mentioned that there were a couple of down years, but even aside from the 8-0 start, it seems like there is a certain electricity that had been missing for a while.

Baxter: "Coach Willard did a great job at Seton Hall. Then, he comes here and brings that same energy. He reminds me of a Gary Williams Jr. so to speak — a lot of grit and a lot of fight in him. And you see that energy transfer to the court."

Thomas: I love that they brought you back to talk to the team. You were on a special team, the championship team of 2001-02. How was your conversation with the guys? 

Baxter: "He brought me and a lot of former [Maryland] guys into the locker room and just introduced us to the guys. He wanted them to know who we were and what we were a part of. And like I said, this is a rebuild year for them technically, but they are laser focused. They know the expectations of them, they know the history and legacy of the program that they are now a part of, and they are getting the job done. Hats off to them. They just beat a good Illinois team last night. We are really playing well. Love what I’m seeing."

Thomas: You mentioned the Illinois game and I referenced the electricity — you saw it in the crowd and the announcers kept bringing it up. They said that a year ago, the stands were empty. But last night, it was a sold-out crowd. You saw the energy in the student section. Talk about how special that is, because y’all had that when you guys were playing but, like you said, it’s been up-and-down for the past few years. That electricity, that crowd support, was definitely present last night. 

Baxter: "I wasn’t able to go last night, but a lot of people were texting me during the game like, 'Are you here?!' It hasn’t been this way in a long time. It’s amazing! [People were] sending me videos and screen shots, and I regret not being there. I had already made my plans and cleared my schedule to be at the UCLA game, but I am mad that I missed it last night. But that’s what we need. There’s been so many up-and-down years, so many disappointments. We’ve had some good teams, don’t get me wrong, but the support and the energy really dipped for a few years. But [now], everyone is all on social media excited. Like, Maryland basketball is back! It’s great for Maryland, great for the DMV. The guys are playing really well and I’m looking forward to the rest of the season." 

Thomas: Now, let’s reminisce for a quick minute about the good ol' days, because y’all had such a special team. Yourself, Steve Blake, Juan Dixon, Byron Mouton, Chris Wilcox... y’all had a crew. Talk about how special that championship team was.

Baxter: "Our team was definitely special because we weren’t a lot of McDonald's All-Americans. We were just a bunch of guys who were hungry, gritty and we loved to play together. Great chemistry. We’re even friends to this day, we have a group chat that we all talk on just about every week. We’re texting each other, congratulating each other on accomplishments, birthdays, talking about the games, etc. It just shows how close of a unit we were. Even when I spent some time with the Wizards when you were there, me, Juan and Steve Blake, it was like we were inseparable. But like I said, we were just hungry and determined and focused, and we played together as a team. Everyone bought into their roles and played to the best of their ability. That might sound cliche, but that’s really what happened! (laughing)"

Thomas: (Laughing) Yeah, it does, but I know what you mean. What advice would you give the team now? It sounds like when they brought you in, it was more to just introduce you to them. But if you could give them all some advice — coming from a member of the 2001-02 championship team, which is the ultimate goal — what advice would you give this young, rebuilding team? 

Baxter: "Just stay humble and stay hungry. Keep doing what you’re doing, and never be satisfied. The hard work, the long hours in the gym, it’s all paying off. They’re jelling on the court and playing some complete games — both offensively and defensively. But keep that underdog mentality, keep that chip on your shoulder and stay hungry."

Thomas: The team is really looking good. What are your thoughts on how everything is going so far? 

Byron Mouton: "You know, the first time I met Coach Willard, I had a good feeling about him and this upcoming season. He was direct and to the point, and he doesn’t hide his feelings. And I know a lot of the players. Jahmir, I’ve known since he was in the fifth grade. He has a high basketball IQ, understands the game and is a team player, and has always been that way. And he plays winning basketball, so I was definitely excited for Maryland to get him."

Thomas: Can you explain a little more about why you had that good feeling about Coach Willard? 

Mouton: "Well, from the start, he set the tone. [He] brought a lot of us alumni back and had a meeting with us, and told all of us that he valued us, respected us, appreciated us and wanted us involved with the team moving forward, and that was big. He made the point clear that his goal was to bring us back to a consistent top-10 program, which is what it should be."

Thomas: So, he valued the legacy of Maryland. 

Mouton: "Exactly. And he made the point clear also that in order to be amongst the best, we had to compete against the best. He said he didn’t believe in hiding from anyone and that was music to my ears. When I played for Gary Williams, we always played the best teams in the non-conference, early schedule. We would go to Maui, preseason NIT... wherever the top competition was, that’s where we went. Mark Turgeon didn’t want to do that; he wanted to play in these little cupcake tournaments where we’re heavy favorites and expected to win, but that’s not how you get better. That’s not how you prepare for regular-season Big 10 games."

Thomas: I see. And talk about Coach Willard's passion and energy. He showed a lot of energy on the sidelines last season with Seton Hall, and it seems like he brought that same energy here to Maryland.

Mouton: "I don’t want to compare him to Gary Williams, but there are a lot of similarities. Passionate, honest, doesn’t hold back his emotions or his feelings. I love coaches like that. I can’t play for a guy who just wants to sit on the bench and call out plays, but shows no passion. I wanna know that you’re in this battle with me."

Thomas: I hear you. Like, he shares your passion. 

Mouton: "Yes. And he holds everyone accountable, the practices are intense, and he has that fire. And he teaches. So, he has all the keys to being successful at this level, and that’s exactly the kind of coach I would want to play for."

Thomas: It seems like he’s earned the players' trust very early. Sometimes, as you know, it’s difficult for a new coach to do that.

Mouton: "Yes, it definitely can be. But at the same time, as you know, in order for any head coach to be really successful, it’s crucial to hire great assistants, and he did that with Coach Cox and Coach Tony Skinns. I’ve played with them and against them; I know them know them. And they have great ties to the DMV community, so I gotta include them as far as being vital for the overall success of the team." 

Thomas: Let’s talk about Jahmir Young. He really shined last night and you’ve known him for a long time — you said since he was in the fifth grade? 

Mouton: "Yeah, definitely. And like Coach said last night, he came here to do exactly what he did last night. A lot of teams are building their rosters through the transfer portal — that’s just where college basketball is right now. It’s not like in the old days when we played; coaches have to win now so they try to get players who are ready immediately. And Jahmir knows the game of basketball. Team player, leader, and was ready day one. He leads by example and also holds himself accountable. That’s how a leader should be. And he’s always under control, that’s one of the things that’s most impressive about him. He doesn’t let anything that the opponent is doing speed him up or make him panic. He plays at his pace and runs the team. He’s special."

Thomas: I asked Lonny Baxter this and I’mma ask you the same thing: Y’all had a special championship team. What was it that made y’all work so well? 

Mouton: "Well, in my opinion, it was about how competitive we were every single day. Everyone held everyone else accountable. Nobody allowed anyone else to coast in practice, or not give it their all, or not play at the highest level every single day. People held me accountable, I held them accountable — about everything. Not running the sprints hard enough in practice, not being where you’re supposed to be on the defensive rotation, not giving the effort, whatever it was. And our practices were intense, and that carried over into the game."

Thomas: What advice would you give to this current team? 

Mouton: "Well, as you know, as the entire DMV is buzzing about them now, they have to stay together when that tide changes. They’re not going to be buzzing like this all year (laughing) — that’s just not the way it works. I’ll give you an example. The year before we won the national championship, we were playing Duke. We were up 10 points with 1:04 left, and we lost. Craziest game I have ever been a part of in my entire college career. All the fans were booing us, the papers were killing us. People on campus were looking at us sideways when we walked by (laughing). Everyone was down on us. And after that, we lost three-straight games. I’ll never forget when we lost to Florida State and their little point guard jumped on the scorer’s table and was talking noise to our fans, waving bye-bye to them, and our fans started letting us have it. We could’ve crumbled as an entire team after that, but we didn’t. We pulled together and developed an us-against-the-world mentality. I say that because, there will come a time during this season when all the cheering stops, and maybe even some boos start. And now they have social media, so everyone can tell you that you suck (laughing). I would tell them when that happens, to pull together. Take on the us-against-the-world mentality. Don’t splinter and start pointing fingers and playing the blame game because that happens, but stick together, pull together in tough times, and keep that passion and excitement and love for the game they have now, and they will do just fine."

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