- The Washington Times - Monday, November 20, 2000

It is a late weekday afternoon and sixth-ranked Maryland is holding an intrasquad scrimmage in empty Cole Field House, much like it does several times a week during the preseason. The lack of atmosphere is lost on swingman Byron Mouton who cheers and groans as if a title was on the line.

Judging by Mouton's demeanor it is difficult to ascertain that this is just another soon-to-be-forgotten scrimmage. His eyes are filled with fire, his face has a perpetual scowl made even more menacing by his goatee and he has an emphatic response after every play.

The 6-foot-6 junior, who transferred from Tulane, spent the afternoon diving for loose balls, recklessly crashing the boards and jawing with Juan Dixon. The teammates are matched up against each other in this scrimmage.

LaRon Cephas makes a difficult shot near the basket and draws a foul late in the scrimmage to help Mouton's team. Mouton gathers his squad in a huddle at the foul line and gives a fiery pep talk that booms in cavernous Cole. After the motivational speech, Mouton looks at coach Gary Williams standing nearby and sternly says, "Emotions coach. Emotions."

The Terps tended to show their feelings in a very Al Gore-like way last season. Several players, like Terence Morris, were almost robotic in their unchanging, deadpan expressions. The result was they didn't feed off each other's emotions a flaw painfully exposed in the 35-point loss to UCLA in the second round of the NCAA tournament when the Terps' spirit was broken.

That's where Mouton's colorful Cajun Country background comes into play.

"He brings a different personality to the team," said Dixon, the spiritual leader of the low-key team last season. "He's a loud guy. He's rah-rah. He's emotional on the court. We lacked that a little bit last year. Some guys tried, but just don't show their enthusiasm like Byron. Byron is from down South so he doesn't believe in holding anything back. He just goes out there and has fun. It's like 'Go party.' "

Mouton has brought his slashing game, his tenacious defense and his instinctive rebounding skills to College Park, after transferring from Tulane and sitting out last season. Mouton gives the Terps another scorer on a team with more depth than a Jacques Cousteau journey. But the most important ingredient he brings is his raw passion like pumping fists or screaming in despair. It's a contagious intensity that hasn't been around Cole Field House since Steve Francis took his gestures and swagger to the NBA.

"It's like a big carnival," said Mouton, a regular reveler in New Orleans' Mardi Gras celebration. "As soon as I get on the court, everything just lights up. I don't care what's going on. I just get on the court and I feel so good. I don't know what it is. I have so much energy."

The 215-pound Mouton is a physical shooting guard who also can play small forward. He will begin the season as a top reserve, but should get extensive playing time because he is so versatile and can play in numerous combinations. For instance, the Terps can go with a three-guard set with Dixon and Mouton on the floor, or go big with Mouton at shooting guard.

"You need a guy flying around sometimes to change things," said Williams, who sees Mouton and Steve Blake as his two players who can create their own scoring opportunities. "You get into a rut in basketball sometimes. Byron can get you out of it."

Williams jokes that Mouton has a similar intensity to when Williams played for the Terps in the late 1960s and three times the talent.

Mouton's passion began on a dirt court behind the family's home in Rayne, La., a small town 90 miles west of New Orleans and not far from the Gulf of Mexico. When he wasn't occasionally wrestling an alligator, he was honing his skills behind the house. When the noise annoyed his mother Shirley, the game was moved to a nearby church.

The bolt of Louisiana Lightning accepted a scholarship to Kentucky out of Rayne High School, and seemed a perfect fit in Rick Pitino's run-and-gun offense. But when Pitino took the Boston Celtics job in the spring of 1997, Mouton decided to stay near home at Tulane.

He was an instant hit in the Big Easy and was runner-up to Saint Louis' Larry Hughes for Conference USA Freshman of the Year after he averaged a team-high 15.4 points. His sophomore season, after leading the team with an 11.4 average, he battled minor injuries and became disenchanted with the Green Wave's direction. He decided to make a change.

But rather than reopen the entire recruiting process, Mouton considered only three programs Kentucky, Connecticut and Maryland that he was familiar with because they recruited him out of high school. After visiting UConn and College Park and meeting with Tubby Smith in New Orleans, he chose the Terps, who had a secret recruiting tool and didn't even know it.

"What pushed Maryland over the top is I have family here," said Mouton, whose older brother Clyde lives in Waldorf, Md., and his sister Darlene resides in Alexandria, Va. Byron and his identical twin brother, who lives in New Orleans, are the youngest of five children.

Mouton said that sitting out a season was as bad as he feared. He wasn't allowed to exert his energy in games, but he made the most of it in practice.

"Last year he really killed the red team [starters] when he was on the scout team," said Dixon, one of five returning starters. "We just want the same push from Byron we got last year."

Mouton, whose middle name is King, says he didn't get depressed or go through any soul searching as he watched the Terps post a 25-10 record. He learned a new system and got a new perspective on how a coach sees the game. He thinks it would be a good idea for all freshmen to watch and learn for a season before playing.

He wasted no time becoming a fan favorite when he finally was in uniform in front of a nearly-packed house for Midnight Madness this season. Mouton wore a hockey-style facemask as protection after being elbowed in the face during a pick-up game. The Terp displayed his spicy side with a full flip that whipped the crowd into a frenzy before an understated layup. It hardly mattered that he meant to catch the ball on the fly and dunk it, the grand entrance was a success.

His joie de vivre was not diminished, and may have even grown while he was forced to miss last season. Maryland plans on using that frenzied passion to stoke its fire all season long.

"He's a character," said Blake, a point guard who rarely shows emotion. "On the court, he's all business. But he might do something crazy after he scores. He brings excitement and intensity to the game, and that can carries over to the rest of us."

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