Texas Tech men’s basketball forward Tariq Owens is not expected to be at full strength for Monday night’s NCAA tournament final against No. 1 seed Virginia. He sprained his ankle Saturday in a win over Michigan State and did not practice Sunday, instead limited to a walking boot.
But that the Odenton native is even a win from the sport’s greatest prize is as remarkable as the rise of the third-seeded Red Raiders team he’s helped to anchor defensively.
In high school, he was cut from the junior varsity at Arundel. After transferring to Pallotti, he played on the team's varsity, then spent a postgraduate year at Mt. Zion Prep in Lanham. But his journey had only just begun.
Owens originally committed to Ohio, then was released from his commitment after a coaching change. He later signed to play at Tennessee, where he played just one season. After another coaching change in Knoxville, Owens transferred to St. John’s.
With his 6-foot-10 frame and springy athleticism, Owens immediately established himself as a defensive presence. In addition to averaging 8.4 points and 5.9 rebounds per game last season, Owens led the Big East and ranked No. 11 nationally with 2.8 blocks per game. His 94 blocks last season tied for second most in program history.
Because Owens graduated with a degree in sport management last spring, he was eligible to play immediately as a graduate transfer. St. John's granted his release in March, and Owens narrowed his list in early April to Texas Tech, Maryland and the Red Storm.
The Terps at that point had signed Mount Saint Joseph star Jalen Smith, who has a similar athletic profile, and were waiting on a decision from center Bruno Fernando, who later decided to return to College Park. Texas Tech was 1,600-plus miles from home and had lost five of its top six scorers from an Elite Eight team.
But a week after visiting College Park, he took in Lubbock and realized it was where he needed to be.
“I knew Texas Tech was the right spot when I came down to visit and I saw how many guys were in the gym after they just were in the Elite Eight,” he told reporters Friday. “They had just gotten knocked out of the tournament and a week later, to see everybody in the gym multiple times in the day, just spoke to me and showed me how dedicated they were.
“They weren’t satisfied that they had made it to the Elite Eight and they were upset that they got knocked out so early. They lost to the eventual champions in Villanova. That just spoke wonders to me and made me really want to be down there.”
Owens has been as advertised for coach Chris Beard and the Red Raiders, who’d never made it to the Final Four until they upset No. 1 seed Gonzaga, a win sealed in part by an Owens block. He leads the team in field-goal percentage (61.5) and blocks (2.5 per game). According to kenpom.com, there hasn’t been a more efficient defense in the past 17 years.
“I loved being back home, being in front of my family, being close to them,” Owens said of playing for St. John’s. “I had to make a very tough decision. And it ended up being the right decision.”