Owens ready to face old team with Montana
Even though Freddie Owens hasn't suited up in a Wisconsin basketball uniform for eight years now, he admits to still paying particularly close attention to his alma mater during the season.
That task has become more difficult the past three seasons with Owens busy as an assistant coach at Montana. But he maintains an open line of communication with his former head coach Bo Ryan, as well as assistants Greg Gard and Gary Close.
"We all have pretty good relationships," Owens said by phone this week. "I get text messages from them when we win big games saying congratulations and vice versa. We're always keeping tabs on each other."
This week, the four of them will be able to communicate in person.
In one of the more intriguing storylines of the NCAA tournament, Owens' Montana team (25-6) earned a No. 13 seed and drew No. 4 Wisconsin (24-9) in an opening round matchup. The teams play at 1:10 p.m. CT Thursday in Albuquerque, N.M., out of the East Region.
"I think it's a huge opportunity for us to come out and show that we can play with one of the nation's best teams," Owens said.
Owens certainly would know. The Milwaukee native was a starter under Ryan for the Badgers in 2003 and 2004 and the team's sixth man in 2002 as a sophomore. He helped Wisconsin win two Big Ten regular-season championships (2002 and 2003) and one Big Ten tournament title (2004). He also is remembered for drilling a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to help the Badgers knock off Tulsa in the second round of the 2003 NCAA tournament.
Earlier this week, Ryan suggested Owens might be the most popular man in the Montana basketball program because of his in-depth knowledge of the Badgers' style of play. Certainly, no coach on the Grizzlies' staff understands Wisconsin's swing offense and lockdown defensive principles in the way that Owens does.
"I know he's having the most fun for now," Montana coach Wayne Tinkle said by phone Monday night. "That's for sure."
Owens recalls having brief conversations as a player with Ryan regarding a possible future in coaching. At the time, Owens was more interested in pursuing a professional playing career.
But that career as a player took him to Latvia and lasted just one season. When he returned to the United States in 2006, he was ready to become a basketball coach.
Owens began as an AAU coach in Milwaukee with an under-16 team and then served one-year stints as an assistant coach at Division II Adams State in Colorado and a graduate assistant at Iowa State. He then joined Montana's program in 2009.
Tinkle said he first learned of Owens after speaking with Tony Bennett, a Wisconsin assistant coach from 1999-2003. Tinkle asked Bennett about any up-and-coming assistants that might be interested in Montana, and Bennett mentioned Owens' name.
"I spoke several times to Freddie, and it didn't work out that first go-around," Tinkle said. "Freddie did a great job staying in touch with me throughout that year. We had another opening, and I remembered our conversation. He had me call Bo Ryan, and I got Bo off the golf course to give a resounding recommendation for Freddie, so I knew he must have stood by it because I don't think Bo gets interrupted too much when he's golfing."
Ryan described Owens, 30, as a hard worker who always did what was asked of him as a player at Wisconsin. And Owens has carried over that mentality into the coaching ranks.
"I'm sure he's going to move up on a lot of radar screens on assistant coaching jobs," Ryan said. "Heck, Freddie might be after a head (coaching) job pretty soon."
Owens very nearly landed his next assistant coaching job at Wisconsin. After one season in Montana's program, he interviewed for an opening with the Badgers in 2010 — a position that ultimately went to Lamont Paris.
Owens understood that he didn't have the experience to land the job, so he sold the fact that he knew Wisconsin's program inside and out. He said it was good enough to make him a finalist for the position.
"I thought I would try to take that angle to try to get the job," Owens said. "Pretty much tell Coach Ryan and the rest of the staff it won't be a huge transition at all because I know what's expected. I knew at the end of the day my lack of experience was going to come back to bite me in the butt. For me to be a finalist at 28 years old, it was kind of an awesome experience."
Not landing the Wisconsin job may have been one of the best things for Owens, he said, because it forced him to develop as a coach, working outside of his comfort zone to grasp an entirely different system at the Division I level.
"I've learned a ton," Owens said. "Working under Coach Tinkle, I've learned a lot working on set plays, game management, changing defenses. This is a great opportunity. Not only am I at a great place, we have great chemistry on our staff. Great kids. I just think this is definitely an experience that will help me down the road in my career."
In the three years that Owens has coached with Montana's program, the Grizzlies are 68-27 with two NCAA tournament appearances, which certainly won't hurt his resume when the next job opportunity presents itself.
"He's done a great job," Tinkle said. "He's a tireless worker. No task is above him or beneath him. He's a team guy and very, very loyal. He's a relatively young coach in this profession, but he continues to work hard and ask questions, and we're delighted to have him."
Of course, before Owens can think about the next step in his coaching career, he first must focus all his energy on helping Montana beat Wisconsin in the NCAA tournament. Not surprisingly, he has taken the lead on scouting reports for Wisconsin this week.
Whether his input means Montana can spring a monumental upset remains to be seen.
"If we come out on edge and follow our principles defensively, I think we've got a shot," Owens said. "We just can't make a lot of mistakes. Wisconsin is not going to beat themselves. They're not going to turn it over. They're not going to take bad shots. We have to stay disciplined defensively."
Members of Wisconsin's coaching staff say that while they're rooting for Owens in his career, any friendships will be put aside on Thursday. That's why the text messages between Owens and the Badgers' coaches have stopped this week — at least temporarily.
"I'm happy for Freddie," said Gard, the Badgers' assistant coach. "We'll see how happy I am Thursday afternoon.
"He's doing it the right way. He knows that there aren't shortcuts in this profession, that you have to continue to work at it, and maintain good relationships and be appreciative of the people that have helped you along the way, and he's done that. He's a very good coach now, and he has a bright future in front of him."
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