An unlikely turnaround at Kennesaw State

When Amir Abdur-Rahim arrived at Kennesaw State in the spring of 2019, he knew the program had a history. Sure, it didn’t reach the Division I level, but it was still a program with a national championship in 2004.

When he walked into the team’s home arena four years ago, there was no evidence of that.

The team’s Division II national championship banner was in a storage locker. As soon as Abdur-Rahim found it, he went to the school building and asked to put it on the roof.

“It was a great symbol that special things can be done here,” Abdur-Rahim told ESPN on Monday morning. “We took advantage of that. Not just with recruiting, but with our team. There are people here who care about this program. It was a place that didn’t have an identity, but had an opportunity to do something really special.”

The Owls have two more banners next to them, sharing the Atlantic Sun regular-season championship with the Liberty and then earning a berth in the NCAA Tournament on Sunday after defeating the Flames in the conference tournament title game. They are awaiting an announcement next Sunday on where they will land at Field 68.

Sunday’s win was one of the biggest turnarounds in college basketball history, where Kennesaw State went from one win in Abdur-Rahim’s first season to 26 this season.

“Stupid to be honest,” he said.

Here’s some perspective on the scope of Abdur-Rahim’s rebuilding job at Kennesaw: Not only is this the program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance since moving to Division I in 2005, it’s the program’s first Division I season to finish above .500. This year’s team set the program record for wins in a season in mid-January.

Taking over one of the worst teams in college basketball was a completely different experience for a coach who had spent the previous five years at top-ranked Texas A&M and Georgia State. Abdur-Rahim did not want to change the program in one year, but had to start from scratch every season. The process was going to be long. He wanted to take a long-term view.

“It’s as simple as I can say it: not every job is a transfer portal job,” he said. “Some of the work you have to build with the upperclassmen is to be able to maintain it over time. When you build a different team every year, it’s not all the same. We wanted to work with the upperclassmen to grow old with those guys. I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to do that.” and was blessed.”

Abdur-Rahim and his staff had only two available scholarships when they took over at Kennesaw State. Their first two recruits were starting quarterback Terrell Bearden and reserve forward Armani Harris. In the next recruiting cycle, the Owls signed Chris Youngblood, Brandon Stroud, Spencer Rodgers and Kasen Jennings. Entering Sunday, five of Abdur-Rahim’s six signings in his first two years saw at least 20 minutes.

The road to the NCAA tournament certainly wasn’t without pain. Kennesaw State was one of the worst teams in the country in 2020 and 2021. The Owls went 1-28 in 2020 and won just one ASUN game. The following season, they improved only slightly, finishing 5-19 overall and 2-13 in the league.

The transfer portal is becoming more and more tempting.

“After my sophomore year, I thought we had to get older. We have to be as talented as possible,” said Abdur-Rahim. “Ben Fletcher, my head coach, he says, ‘No.’ What do you say, no? “You didn’t say you wanted to do it. We’re right there. We’re not panicking right now. We’re not breaking character now, let’s stay grounded and continue to evolve.” “

It worked both ways — the talented young players Abdur-Rahim received could have looked for other options in the first two seasons.

“Many people outside, what are you doing here, why don’t you enter the portal?” he was saying. Burden told ESPN. “It all comes together. Running away from problems will get you nowhere, it will teach you nothing. Embrace the journey of suffering and failure before you reach success.”

In 2021-22, Kennesaw State finally showed signs of life, improving to 7-9 in conference play and winning against Bellarmine and Jacksonville, last season’s ASUN tournament championship finalists. Through it all, the core of the team remained intact – resulting in 25 wins in three seasons.

“It was just a matter of time as far as keeping the same group,” Borden said. “Learning to win is the hardest part. Once you learn how to win, doing it is easier than learning it.

“That was the highlight,” he added, referring to this year’s juniors and seniors who stuck together from the start. “We’ve all been through the same thing. These are my brothers now. Keeping the core group was more important to me than people realized. It’s easy to say, you’re a young group, take the guys out. Switch portals and get old. But if you can stick together as a younger generation, that’s 10 improves many times.

When discussing the remarkable turnaround, both Abdur-Rahim and Borden went back to a moment in their first season together. The Owls lost to NJIT on Senior Day with both Borden and Harris sidelined with injuries. As the team left the floor, the then-first-year head coach walked center court to two of his recruits. He pointed to a sparse crowd of about 1,000 people and had a clear message:

Don’t settle for it, because it doesn’t always work out that way.

The crowd will not be like this, the atmosphere will not be like this, the team and culture will not be like this. It changes when we start winning.

Borden and Harris recalled the moment four years later on Sunday — when they drew a school record 3,805. Both of them went to Abdurrahim and thanked him.

“To see it done, it has a different meaning,” Borden said. “It was a different feeling … it was a great time to remind him.”

With Selection Sunday a week away, the biggest concern for Kennesaw is when to put up the banners this week or early next season. But they certainly won’t be in the storage closet.

“They will be right next to the 2004 national championship flag,” Abdur-Rahim said.

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