Packed away somewhere in his father’s house in Milwaukee is a notebook that would come in handy for Freddie Owens this week.
In it is a surplus of information that Owens digested during his four-year career with the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team in the early 2000s.
“It includes what’s expected of you as a student-athlete and stuff about our offensive and defensive principles,” Owens, an assistant coach at Montana who played his last three years with the Badgers under coach Bo Ryan, said during a phone conversation Monday night. “The whole shebang.”
Owens sighed. Ever since the NCAA tournament bracket was announced on Sunday and Owens saw the Grizzlies (25-6) were playing the Badgers (24-9) on Thursday in Albuquerque, N.M., he’s been hard at work trying to figure out away to help Montana upset his former team.
At one point, Owens, 30, briefly considered putting his father to work to help the Grizzlies’ cause.
“It’d be great to pull that thing out now and kind of read some things over,” Owens said of the notebook. “If I would have had a little bit more notice with the tournament, then I definitely would have told him to FedEx it to me overnight.”
Climbing the ladder
Ever since Owens was hired three years ago by Montana coach Wayne Tinkle, a Milwaukee native, the Grizzlies have been known as the “Fighting Freddies” around the UW coaching offices.
Owens was recruited to UW by Dick Bennett’s staff as a defensive stopper. Under Ryan, Owens also developed into a nice offensive player, developing a knack for big shots in clutch moments.
The former Milwaukee Washington standout was a key reserve on the UW team that won a share of the Big Ten Conference regular-season title in 2001‑02, Ryan’s first season. Owens started the next two seasons, contributing to a regular-season title as a junior and a Big Ten tournament title as a senior.
“Really a tough defensive player,” Ryan said. “Played guys a lot bigger than him. That expression, “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight but the fight in the dog” — he’d be a poster guy for that saying.”
Becoming a coach wasn’t on Owens’ mind when he was with the Badgers, but that’s the path he chose after a brief professional playing career in Latvia.
Owens returned to Milwaukee and took a job coaching an under-16 team in the AAU program in which he had played. A year later, a friend told him there was an opening at Adams State College, a Division II program in Alamosa, Colo.
Just like that, Owens’ foot was in the college coaching door. He spent the next season as a graduate assistant at Iowa State before hearing of an opening on Tinkle’s staff from former UW assistant Tony Bennett.
After one season at Montana, Owens interviewed for an opening on Ryan’s staff. He didn’t get the job — Ryan chose the more experienced Lamont Paris — but Owens impressed his former coaches.
“It was a little weird sitting across from coach Ryan and the rest of the staff being interviewed,” Owens said, “because I was so used to having that player-coach relationship and now, all of a sudden, it’s more of a business side of it.”
If Owens thought that was a weird feeling, you can only imagine what he felt like sitting in his office late Sunday night breaking down film of the Badgers.
UW doesn’t run the swing offense as much as it did when Owens was a player, but the program’s defensive principles have remained consistent.
What has Owens been telling the Grizzlies about how to approach a UW defense that is ranked among the nation’s best year in and year out?
“You’ve just got to be disciplined,” he said. “It all comes back to discipline and being fundamentally sound.
“We work on fundamentals every day, but today was one of those practices where we really stressed it. You’ve got to take care of the ball, you’ve got to meet passes, you’ve got to use ball fakes and you’ve got to be patient, most importantly. Because if you take bad shots or you don’t set good screens or you don’t get great ball movement, it plays right into their hands. And we don’t want that.”
Owens is grateful for everything Ryan and his assistants taught him at UW, even when the message had to be delivered in a unique manner.
During one practice, Ryan sent assistant Greg Gard, who’s now the associate head coach, up to the top level of the Kohl Center with a bullhorn. Ryan was growing tired of Owens dribbling the ball in one place — he had done so 13 consecutive times during the previous game — so every time he did it in practice, Gard got on the bullhorn.
“Freddie, this is God,” Gard said, as Owens remembers it. “Pass the ball.”
Owens, who had no idea at the time that the message was being delivered by Gard, didn’t think it was very funny at the time. But he does now.
“It is, because I see myself telling our guys the same thing,” Owens said. “You don’t need the dribble; be efficient, get to the rim, create for yourself and create for others.
“It goes to show you the type of guys they are. They know how to get a point across as far as being a teacher but have fun with it also, and that’s what I miss most.”
Earlier this week, Gard recalled how much Owens grew as a player and a person during his time at UW.
Owens credits his growth to Ryan and his staff.
“When you’re out (of college) two years, you’re out four years, and four years becomes eight, you kind of think back on the lessons they taught you on the court and you realize that it was more about life than basketball,” Owens said. “And fortunately, I’ve been able to kind of piece those things together and it’s helped me in my life as well as in my profession.”