Eying the Alma Mater

Not only will fourth-seed Wisconsin have only three full days to prepare for 13th-seed Montana in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, the Badgers will have to overcome the knowledge of assistant coach and former UW guard Freddie Owens, who knows a thing or two about hitting big postseason shots.

MADISON - Like any competitor, Sharif Chambliss was tired of losing. Having gone 7-21 his sophomore and junior season at Penn State, including a combined 5-28 in the Big Ten, Chambliss was ready to leave Happy Valley and the Racine-native was drawn to the University of Wisconsin.

Freddie Owens was about to be a senior on that 2003-04 Badgers team and was about to go against Chambliss every day in practice. Upon meeting him, Chambliss remembers Owens, who he calls ‘a roommate,' telling him one thing:

"He said they were going to get me a ring," said Chambliss. "And he didn't lie. I will forever be grateful for that because I was so hungry for one."

Owens knows a thing or three about rings, winning two Big Ten regular season championship to go along with the Big Ten Tournament championship ring he helped put on Chambliss finger in 2004. He also shot himself into UW folklore.

Down 58-45 with 3:36 remaining to 13th-seed Tulsa in the second round of the 2003 NCAA Tournament, Wisconsin went on an 11-0 run to cut the lead to two with 1:16 remaining. Trailing by two with 12 seconds left, sophomore point guard Devin Harris came off a high screen, drove to the middle of the lane and kicked the ball to Owens on the left baseline.

The end result sent UW into the Sweet 16 for the first time in three years and made Owens as one of the faces of the post season.

"That clip will be shown 50 times this week in the Madison area," said Gard. "It was great for Freddie and continued to solidify everything that was going was on in the program and how far it had come from before."

After not making the tournament for a 47-year stretch between 1947 and 1994, Wisconsin will be making its 14th straight NCAA Tournament appearance Thursday when the fourth-seed Badgers take on 13th-seed Montana, which has Owens, 30, on the bench as an assistant coach for the past three seasons.

Their official team name is the Grizzlies, but they are known around the UW coaching office as the ‘Fighting Freddies.'

"Thankfully Freddie can't play anymore," said Gard. "He won't be banging in any threes from the corner on us."

Journey to Madison

Owens was recruited by former UW coach Dick Bennett's staff and was a sophomore on campus before UW coach Bo Ryan and his staff got to Madison. Gard said Owens was probably recruited as a defensive stopper instead of a shooter – he only scored 796 points in his four-year career (2001-04) – but brought the toughness that Ryan's team have been known for.

"Really a tough defensive player," said Ryan. "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, Freddie be the poster guy for that saying. Tough. Played hard … Always did what we asked."

Even with that mindset, there were still growing pains.

"There were some days that Freddie didn't guard anybody," said Gard with a laugh. "Freddie had a habit of dribbling a lot. He apparently set the school record for most dribbles in one spot. Coach said it was like 13."

To combat that problem, Ryan told Owens and the team that Gard was out on a recruiting trip when the team came out to practice. Instead, Gard was hiding in the upper deck with a megaphone in his hand.

As Owens started to dribble in practice, Gard would pipe up on the bullhorn and say repeatedly ‘Freddie, pass the ball.'

"I am apparently ‘God' talking down to him from the top," Gard said. "We had a couple of habits we had to clean up with Freddie. Some of our young guys have no clue who Freddie Owens is, but we say, ‘You are closing in on Freddie's record.'"

Preparing for UW

The topic this week posed to Ryan and his staff was how much Owens' knowledge of their system, principles and teachings will really help the Grizzlies on Thursday. Ryan told the story of how former assistant Saul Phillips talked Gard into scheduling a nonconference game for North Dakota State game between two Big Ten games in 2006. Gard and Ryan caved to help out someone in the basketball family.

They helped more than they bargained for, as the Bison registered one of the biggest upsets in the Ryan era. Will Owens' knowledge have a similar impact?

"If Freddie did his homework and he kept his notebook, then he's got everything we've done," said Gard. "I don't think there will be any surprises. They probably won't surprise us and we won't surprise them."

Wisconsin doesn't run the swing offense as much as it used to, but the discipline and fundamentals have remained constant.

"Discipline, toughness and grit, those three things are huge," Owens said. "He always preached that to us when he came on board and taught that to us. If you don't beat yourself, you'll be in every game. I've tried to take those personally with me as a coach in this profession. When I am teaching young guys, I am trying to instill those same things into them.

"It's a great opportunity for us to show we can play with a big time program in Wisconsin. There are no secrets to what Coach Ryan and his staff have done with that program over the last 11 years, how successful they've been, how consistent they play and how smart and disciplined they are."

As for the former guard that battled every day in practice for a season, Chambliss and Owens are still exchanging friendly text messages, even though the two assistant's teams will face each other for the right to advance in the tournament.

It's not so much information that's being sent back and forth as much as it is excitement for the opportunity to compete once again.

"It's a great opportunity to match up with a team this year for a team we know a lot about," Chambliss said. "I've always had a competitive thing with me and Freddie. I hit a few shots on him when I was at Penn State. I don't think he liked it. They won some championships, and I didn't like it. He's one of my good friends and we were on the phone with each other about 30 seconds after our names were called."

That's when the latest round of competition started.

"He asked if we could do a direct exchange with film," said Chambliss. "I said you have to hustle and get your own."

It seems some old habits never die.


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