Jeff BorzelloESPN Writer7 minute read
When Amir Abdur-Rahim arrived in Kennesaw State in the spring of 2019, he knew the program had a history. Sure, it didn’t come at the Division I level, but it was still a program with a national championship in 2004.
Yet when he entered the team arena four years ago, there was no evidence of that.
The team’s Division II National Championship banner was in a storage closet. As soon as Abdur-Rahim found it, he went to the school facilities people and asked for it to be installed in the rafters.
“It was a big symbol of special things that can be done here,” Abdur-Rahim told ESPN on Monday morning. “We used it. Not just for recruiting, but with our team. There are people who have come here who care about this program. It was a place with no identity, but one that was about to be able to do something really special.”
The Owls now have two more banners to spare, sharing the Atlantic Sun regular season championship with Liberty, then clinching their ticket to the NCAA Tournament on Sunday after beating the Flames in the conference tournament title game. They await an announcement next Sunday of where they will land in the 68 field.
Sunday’s win capped one of the biggest turnarounds in recent college basketball history in which Kennesaw State went from one win in Abdur-Rahim’s freshman season to 26 this season. .
“It’s crazy, to be honest with you,” he said.
Here’s a look at the scope of Abdur-Rahim’s rebuilding work at Kennesaw: Not only is this the program’s first appearance in an NCAA tournament since moving to Division I in 2005, it’s also the first season of the program that ends above .500 in Division I, period. This year’s team set the record for single-season winning program in mid-January.
For a coach who spent the previous five years on top staffs at Texas A&M and Georgia, taking over one of college basketball’s worst teams was a starkly different experience. Abdur-Rahim didn’t want to just overturn the program in a year and then have to start from scratch every season. The process was going to take longer. He wanted to have a long term vision.
“It’s as simple as I can say: not every job is a transfer gate job,” he said. “Some jobs have to be built with high school kids, so you can sustain them over time. When you build a different team every year, everyone’s membership isn’t the same. We wanted to build with high school kids, grow old with the same guys I was blessed and blessed to be able to do this.
Abdur-Rahim and his team had only two scholarships available when they took over Kennesaw State. Their first two signings were starting goaltender Terrell Burden and reserve forward Armani Harris. The next recruiting round, the Owls signed Chris Youngblood, Brandon Stroud, Spencer Rodgers and Kasen Jennings. On Sunday, five of the six players signed in Abdur-Rahim’s first two years saw at least 20 minutes.
The road to the NCAA Tournament hasn’t been smooth sailing, of course. Kennesaw State was one of the worst teams in the nation in 2020 and 2021. The Owls went 1-28 overall in 2020, winning just one ASUN game. The following season they improved only slightly, finishing 5-19 on aggregate and 2-13 in the league.
The transfer portal began to become more and more of a temptation.
“After our second year, I was like, we have to get older. We just have to get as talented as we can be,” Abdur-Rahim said. “Ben Fletcher, my associate head coach, he says, ‘No.’ What do you mean, right? “That’s not how you said you wanted to do it. We are here. We are not panicking now. We’re not going to break character now, stay committed and keep growing.”
It worked both ways – the talented young players Abdur-Rahim signed in the first two seasons could also have pursued other options.
“A lot of people from the outside were saying, what are you doing here, why don’t you come in through the gate?” Burden told ESPN. “Everything was going to fall into place. Running away from problems gets you nowhere, it doesn’t teach you anything. Embrace the journey through pain and unsuccessful seasons before you have successful ones.”
In 2021-22, Kennesaw State finally showed signs of life, moving to 7-9 in conference and earning wins over Bellarmine and Jacksonville, ASUN Tournament Championship runners-up last season. Through it all, the core of the team remained intact, resulting in an improvement of 25 wins in just three seasons.
“It was only a matter of time if we kept the same group,” Burden said. “Learning to win is the hardest part. Once you learn how to win, it’s easier to do it than to learn it.
“That was the most important thing,” he added, referring to the fact that this year’s juniors and seniors stuck together from the start. “We all went through the same thing. They’re my brothers now. Keeping the core band, that meant more to me than people understood. It’s easy to say, you’re a young band, go out guys from the transfer portal and getting older. But when you’re able to fit in as a young unit, it makes it 10 times better.
While discussing the remarkable turnaround, Abdur-Rahim and Burden reflected on a moment from their first season together. The Owls lost Senior Day to NJIT, with Burden and Harris sidelined with injury. As the team left the floor, the then freshman head coach approached his two rookies on center court. He pointed to the sparse crowd of around 1,000 people and had a clear message:
Don’t get used to it, because it won’t always be like this.
The crowd won’t be like that, the atmosphere won’t be like that, the team and the culture won’t be like that. It will change when we start winning.
Burden and Harris recalled the moment four years later on Sunday – in front of a record school attendance of 3,805. Both approached Abdur-Rahim and thanked him.
“To see it come to fruition has a different meaning,” Burden said. “It was a different feeling…it was the perfect time to remind him of that.”
One week away from Sunday selection, Kennesaw’s biggest concern right now is when to put the banners up, whether it happens this week or at the start of next season. But they definitely won’t be in a storage closet.
Said Abdur-Rahim: “They will go right next to that 2004 national championship banner.”