With its 82-46 blasting of Purdue Feb. 29, the UW men’s basketball team secured its first undefeated home campaign since Walter Meanwell’s Badgers accomplished the feat in 1930.
The victory also extended Wisconsin’s winning streak at the Kohl Center to 28 games, kept UW in the hunt for the conference crown and marked the third-consecutive season in which it garnered at least 10 Big Ten victories.
A key cog to accomplishing these achievements and others during Wisconsin’s rise to the top of the Big Ten conference has been senior guard Freddie Owens.
Owens, a two-year starter and one of the Badgers’ best defensive stoppers, ended his Kohl Center career in style, capping off Wisconsin’s victory over Purdue with a two-handed jam and walking off the floor to a standing ovation.
“Everything just fell into place. The last shot was a dunk, and we won the game,” Owens said. “We played great against a great team, so I couldn’t ask for more. The fan support was there, and everything was just great.”
Owens, a Milwaukee native and the oldest of seven children, said he’s been looked at as leader his whole life — playing the roles of a brother, a teammate and a friend.
As a member of the Wisconsin basketball team, he has taken a number of different players under his wing. Among those players is sophomore guard Boo Wade.
“Freddie has had a major impact on me,” Wade said. “He was like, ‘Coach (Ryan) is going to ride you, you’ve just got to find a way to pick through it, fight through it, and don’t get off track — just don’t let up.’ Freddie just encourages me to keep the fight, keep the burn going in my heart…he’s helped me through the whole two years I’ve been here.”
Owens’ leadership abilities, solid defense and ability to do damage on the block will all be sorely missed assets to next year’s team.
“Freddie is able to lock up a lot of bigger players … he’s able to keep them from scoring their averages,” Wade said. “We’re also going to miss the shots he’s able to make. Freddie’s a small guard who’s able to finish in the post.”
Over the course of Owens’ four-year Badger career, three different coaches have been at the helm of Wisconsin’s basketball program.
When he joined the Badgers as a true freshman during the 2000-01 season former UW-Green Bay coaching legend and current Washington State headman Dick Bennett graced the Wisconsin sideline. Bennett would step down midway through the season, however, and was replaced by assistant coach Brad Soderberg.
Although Wisconsin would finish the season 18-11 overall and 9-7 in conference play, Soderberg would not be retained at season’s end and was replaced by UW-Milwaukee head coach Bo Ryan.
While a coaching carousel like this might be looked at as a negative by many players, Owens puts a positive spin on the experience.
“It’s definitely been a change ? I mean their personalities, their styles. It’s just a matter of adapting to it as a basketball player,” Owens said. “I learned so much from Coach Ryan, and Coach Bennett and Coach Soderberg. So, I just try to take what I learned from all three of them and put it together into my game, as well as life.”
Aside from his stingy defense and smooth left-handed jumper, Owens’ easy-going personality and ability to make those around him laugh have made him one of the most well-liked athletes on campus.
“Anybody who grew up with me or I’ve talked to, they can tell you that I’m a jokester. I just like to make people lighten up,” Owens said. “Life is fun. I mean sometimes it has its downs, but when it’s all said and done everything is going to be alright. I just like to laugh, and I love hearing other people laugh with me.”
This jovial approach toward life has also had a positive effect on his fellow Badgers.
“Freddie is always trying to keep everyone happy,” Wade said. “When someone’s down, he’s always cracking jokes to cheer them up. He’s just a joyful person; it’s just fun to have a person like him around.”
Dave Mader and Ike Ukawuba have had the privilege of being around Owens’ upbeat attitude for the past four years, and the three seniors have experienced a number of highs and lows over the course of their UW careers.
It’s these highs and lows that have helped make the senior trio the close-knit group it is today.
“I’m so close to all my teammates, and Ike’s my roommate, so I’m like twice as close to him,” Owens said. “I’ve built a great friendship with Ike and Dave over the last four years. I mean all three of us have been through three different coaches; we’ve been through ups and downs in this program. I think we’ve really grown close to each other, and I think that relationship will continue outside of school and basketball.”
Owens, Mader and Ukawuba have experienced more success than any UW class in recent memory, and the three have etched their names in Wisconsin basketball history forever.
Among the trio’s many accomplishments is their Sweet 16 berth in last year’s NCAA tournament, a feat that was made possible because of Owens’ buzzer-beater against Tulsa in the tourney’s second round.
“It definitely ranks up there as one of the best moments in my basketball career,” said Owens of his game-winning shot. “You can’t ask for anything better. I mean you’re in the tournament, in the big-time spotlight, your team needs a ‘W,’ and you come through for them. There’s no better feeling than to see your teammates jumping around and hanging on you, and they’re just as happy as you are. It’s a great feeling.”
With this year’s Big Dance rapidly approaching, Badger fans will once again be hoping for another magical moment courtesy of the team’s most experienced player. But whether Owens delivers another memorable shot or not, his impact on the UW basketball program will not soon be forgotten.
He’s been at the heart of two Big Ten title runs, three NCAA tournament berths (soon to be a fourth) and a countless number of historic moments during his four-year career at the University of Wisconsin.
No. 24 will be replaced in the UW lineup next season, but Badger fans will always have a special place in their heart for Freddie. And, according to Owens, the feeling is mutual.
“I’ve met some great friends here, great people; this is a great town,” Owens said. “It definitely helped me grow up from a young boy to a young man. Just coming out of high school, it opened my eyes to a lot of things as far as the real world and what it takes to succeed in the real world. I think it’s been a great four years for me … as long as I live, I’ll always remember my experience here.”