Tariq Owens got cut from the Arundel High junior varsity as a freshman. It wasn’t a total surprise since the Odenton resident had only one year of organized basketball experience under his belt and was still learning the fundamentals.
“At the time, I was pretty upset that I got cut. It was kind of heartbreaking,” Owens told The Capital during a telephone interview on Wednesday.
Renard Owens implored his 14-year-old son to use that hurt as motivation. “I told Tariq that if he remembered that feeling, he would never have to experience it again,” the father said.
Nine years later, Tariq Owens has blossomed into a professional prospect and is hoping to be picked in the NBA Draft, being held Thursday night at the Barclay’s Center in New York City.
Most draft analysts consider the 6-foot-10, 205-pound center a possible late second-round selection. However, if he goes undrafted, Owens is virtually assured of quickly being signed as a free agent by some NBA franchise.
“We think Tariq has a good chance to get drafted in the second round, but we’re not hanging our hat on that,” Renard Owens said. “We know there are some teams that really like Tariq that he would fit well with.”
Owens saw his stock rise dramatically during Texas Tech’s magical run through the NCAA Tournament this past March. NBA scouts loved the springy athleticism Owens showed while blocking shots and throwing down dunks as the Red Raiders advanced all the way to the national championship game.
Owens suffered a severe ankle injury in the semifinal victory over Michigan State and was not at full strength for the championship game. He totaled five rebounds, three points and a blocked shot in 22 minutes of action during the 85-77 loss to Virginia.
Despite coming up short of the ultimate goal, Owens will never forget capturing the West Region Championship and advancing to the Final Four at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
“I had never been to the NCAA Tournament at all during my whole college career so to not only make the tournament, but go all the way to the championship game was amazing,” Owens said. “Going in, nobody would have predicted that Texas Tech would wind up in the national championship game. I enjoyed every moment of March Madness.”
Owens said the greatest feeling was flying back to Lubbock after advancing to the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight.
“Every week we stayed alive, our practices became even more fun and intense,” he said.
Owens called the Final Four weekend “crazy” and still cannot believe he got a chance to play in front of 72,000 fans.
“I’ll never forget the first time I walked into the gym. I had so many emotions going on inside,” he said. “I was excited, nervous, star-struck. I was like ‘Wow, this is the Final Four.’ It was just an unbelievable experience overall.”
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Owens played youth football for the Gambrills-Odenton Recreation Council and was a key member of several championship teams coached by Cliff Luber. He gotten into organized basketball in eighth grade after going through the first of several growth spurts.
There would be other setbacks and disappointments in addition to getting cut from the Arundel High junior varsity as a freshman. He made the JV as a sophomore, but saw minimal playing time.
By the time he transferred to St. Vincent Pallotti in Laurel as a junior, Owens stood 6-foot-9 and had dramatically improved his skills. He started two seasons on varsity at the MIAA A Conference school and suddenly emerged as a legitimate Division I prospect.
“That’s when all the workouts I had been doing started to pay off,” Owens said.
Renard Owens, a lieutenant with the Baltimore City Police Department, hired two coaches – Don Aaron of Hoops Gym and Jerard Rucker of the Team Melo Amateur Athletic Union program – to serve as basketball trainers for his son.
“I was working out at six in the morning multiple times a week. I spent my entire summers dedicated to getting better as a basketball player because I was behind all my peers,” Owens said. “My first couple years of playing basketball, I was skinny and uncoordinated. I had to spend a lot of time in the gym trying to catch up with everyone else.”
Owens called his father the “driving force behind my success” and admits there were times when he felt he was being pushed too hard.
“My dad had a big part in helping me become the player I am today. I didn’t always have the drive I do now and it was my dad who helped instill that,” he said. “Early on, he was the one pushing me to wake up early and go work out and has made a lot of sacrifices on my behalf.”
After spending a prep school year at Mount Zion Prep in Lanham, Owens signed with Tennessee and appeared in 28 games with five starts as a freshman. Donnie Tyndall, who had recruited Owens to the Southeastern Conference school, was fired amid allegations of NCAA violations.
Owens transferred to St. John’s, in part because his family has strong ties to that part of New York City. Renard Owens was born and raised in Queens and still has many relatives there.
After sitting out the 2015-2016 season per NCAA transfer rules, Owens wound up playing in 65 games with 34 starts over two seasons with St. John’s under head coach Chris Mullin. He averaged 8.4 points, 5.9 rebounds and 2.8 blocked shots as a redshirt junior for the Red Storm.
Owens led the Big East Conference and ranked 11th nationally in blocks per game, while his 94 total swats rank second all-time in St. John’s basketball history.
“I felt like I did some good things and had a solid career at St. John’s,” Owens said. “As a team, we didn’t achieve as much as we should have. It was a great experience and I learned a lot through great coaching. We just couldn’t put it together as a team.”
GOING OUT A WINNER
St. John’s compiled a 30-36 record during the two seasons Owens was part of the program. After graduating with a degree in sports management, the 23-year-old decided to transfer again in order to spend his final season of eligibility with a winning program.
Owens chose Texas Tech over hometown Maryland, which had two likely front-court starters in center Bruno Fernando and power forward Jalen Smith. Texas Tech, on the other hand, had a need in the middle after 2017-2018 starting center Tommy Hamilton graduated.
“Being down at Texas Tech was great because I was surrounded by so many great players that had the same passion for basketball as I did,” said Owens, who also praised the quality of the coaching staff and the overall atmosphere of the program.
Owens was simply outstanding during his one season in Lubbock, setting a Texas Tech single-season record with 92 blocked shots while leading the team with a 61.1 shooting percentage. The talented graduate transfer averaged 8.7 points and 5.8 rebounds on the way to being named honorable mention All-Big 12 Conference.
“Tariq came in here and bought into everything we wanted him to do. He believed in the plan we had for him,” Texas Tech head coach Chris Beard said.
Beard noted that Owens had to follow a stringent strength and conditioning program in order to withstand the rigors of the Big 12 Conference.
“He’s done everything in the weight room and nutrition-wise to transform himself into a player who will be ready to compete every night,” Beard said. “He was disciplined with his diet and dedicated to lifting weights this summer. We see him continuing on this path that he's on to become a future pro."
Owens, who set a single-game school record with eight blocked shots against Memphis, was named to the Big 12 All-Defensive Team.
"Tariq has a special gift. It isn't just the ability to get up there and block the shot — it’s the anticipation, intelligence, toughness, athleticism, and preparation,” Beard said. “Tariq is my kind of guy — a winner.”
Playing through the ankle injury sustained at the Final Four showed heart and commitment to the team, but did not help Owens in terms of auditioning for the NBA. He was invited to the prestigious Portsmouth Invitational Tournament that is a showcase for pro scouts, but could not attend.
One month after the Final Four, Owens was able to get out of a walking boot and resume begin rehabilitation. He attended private workouts for the Phoenix Suns and Toronto Raptors before being shut down by trainers.
“It was a pretty nasty ankle injury and it took a while for me to heal and recover,” admitted Owens, who is represented by Merle Scott of One Legacy Sports.
Owens hasn’t decided where he will watch the NBA Draft and has not spent too much time worrying about whether he’ll be picked.
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“It’s hard to gauge. You don’t really know what’s going to happen. It’s all a guessing game until draft night rolls around,” he said. “I just know there is a strong possibility I’ll get an opportunity to play pro ball somewhere. That’s all I want is a chance to prove I can play at the highest level.”
Owens was asked what he would tell front office executives for any NBA franchise considering drafting or signing him.
“They’ll be getting a high energy player who is very positive and an extremely hard worker,” he said. “I take pride in being the hardest worker on the team – just a guy who really loves the game and will do whatever it takes to win. I’m also a player who is going to continue getting better.”
Owens has been motivated to succeed in basketball and life ever since losing his mother just prior to entering high school. Cassandra Wallace-Owens died of pancreatic cancer following a nine-month battle.
“I was really, really close with my mom and I think about her every day. Whenever I step on the basketball court, I’m playing for her,” Owens said.
Owens said he will never forget the morning his mother wasn’t feeling well, but was determined to watch him work out. Cassandra sat courtside in a wheelchair as her still gangly teenage son shot baskets and practiced his skills.
“When my mon was sick, I made two promises – that I would go to college and get my degree and that I would take basketball as far as I could,” Owens added. “I’ve already got that diploma and now I’m on the verge of reaching the highest level of basketball there is.”