John Bednarowski: KSU, Abdur-Rahim have become Georgia's best
For much of the last two decades, putting Kennesaw State and the NCAA Tournament in the same sentence was considered more of a punchline than a possibility.
However, that's exactly what could happen if Kennesaw State can beat Liberty in the ASUN championship game Sunday at the KSU Convocation Center.
If you asked the people who should be in the know, Kennesaw State isn't supposed to be here. Despite returning basically the same roster the team had put on the floor for the last three seasons, the coaches within the conference picked the Owls to finish eighth in their preseason poll.
In some ways, it may have been understandable. Kennesaw State was coming off a 13-18 season in 2021-22, but it was obvious many of those people voting hadn't looked at the whole picture.
For nearly a decade from 2011-19, the program was in constant flux. There were as many players leaving the program as there were coming in, and noting seemed stable. In many instances, players played for themselves instead of for the team.
It became clear it was going to take a special person to turn the program around.
That is where Amir Abdur-Rahim comes into the picture.
Whether Kennesaw State had found that person was still in question after a 1-28 season in Abdur-Rahim's 2019-20 debut season, but you could start to see the growth in a 5-19 record during Year 2. Then, last year, the Owls went 13-18 and won a game in the ASUN tournament.
Which brings us to this season.
Kennesaw State is 25-8 going into the ASUN championship. It won the regular-season title and earned the No. 1 seed. The 25 wins equal the amount of wins the team had the four previous seasons combined, and now, one-by-one, the conference's coaches have updated their opinions of the program.
"Ton of credit to Kennesaw," Queens coach Grant Leonard said after Tuesday's quarterfinal matchup with the Owls. "They are an unbelievably well-coached team. What they've done in the last three years, turning this program around, is amazing. It should be talked about more. The fact they are hosting right now, and a couple years ago they didn't win a league game, and this core stayed together? That's what college basketball is all about."
The turnaround started with the hire of Abdur-Rahim, a disciple of former Murray State and Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy.
Abdur-Rahim was known as a great recruiter. When he was hired, he had been an assistant on Tom Crean's staff at Georgia, and Abdur-Rahim was given the credit for bringing future NBA star Anthony Edwards to Athens.
While the credentials as an assistant were great, Abdur-Rahim had the one thing no Kennesaw State coach had since the late Tony Ingle. He is a local guy.
Abdur-Rahim, the younger brother of former NBA star and current NBA G League president Shareef Abdur-Rahim, grew up in Cobb County and played at Wheeler High School.
Amir Abdur-Rahim doubled up on the local ties when the first player to accept a scholarship to play for him was former Campbell High School star Terrell Burden, who is generously listed at 5-foot-10 and had averaged 28 points a game as a senior.
Yet, up to the last minute, Burden did not have a Division I scholarship offer. He bought into Abdur-Rahim's vision, and set the stage for what was to come.
"He's my guy, and I'll follow him anywhere," said Burden, who recently was named second team all-ASUN. "It was all about the opportunity and the chance that, to that point, I hadn't been given. I took it and I ran with it. It means the world to me, being only 30 minutes away, just knowing I'm at home. It's great to know we're doing something special."
Abdur-Rahim, the ASUN Coach of the Year, said he saw what the university could become on the basketball stage, because he had recruited in many of the metro-Atlanta high schools. When he took the job in Kennesaw, he promised to be relentless in recruiting, and he and his staff were going to be in the local gyms.
It has proven to be true, and now it is paying off.
"To be able to say you did something for your community, it's special," Abdur-Rahim said.
After dealing with the 1-28 season, Abdur-Rahim knew he had his point guard in Burden, and there were some quality role players on the team in guard Spencer Rodgers and forward Alex Peterson, but the next big move was signing a pair of East Coweta teammates — Chris Youngblood, a first-team all-conference selection this year, and Brandon Stroud, the ASUN Defensive Player of the Year.
A pair of three-star recruits, they, and Burden, set the foundation, but after a 5-19 season, the question was would the team stay together?
In today's transfer portal world, players who don't get the minutes they want, or those who want to play for an winning team, often leave for what they believe are the greener pastures.
Abdur-Rahim said he had those conversations going in. He was up front with the players. He told them it wasn't going to be easy, but if they believed in him and the process, they would come out the other side better for it.
"He's the total man. He's a really good man," Lipscomb coach Lennie Acuff said after the ASUN semifinals. "He cares about his kids. You can tell there's a huge buy-in on his team. He obviously hired a really good staff. He's also very experienced. He's done it at the highest level.
"He's really a total basketball coach. They are so sound on what they do at both ends. They have just gotten better, better and better.
"There's nothing wrong with going into the portal, but he's went the road less traveled. That's hard to do, what he's done, when you stick with the same guys. The story should be even better than it is."
For years, basketball fans in the Georgia have complained that the most prominent schools in the state have not been able to keep the local talent at home. Abdur-Rahim is trying to change that narrative with the Owls.
While Georgia has five in-state players, and Georgia Tech has six, Kennesaw State has 11 with ties to the state, with most from the metro area. Joining Burden, Youngblood and Stroud are Rodgers (Mountain View), Simeon Cottle (Tri-Cities), Kasen Jennings (Hughes), Armani Harris (Newton), Quincy Ademokoya (Norcross), Matt Brown (Walker), Charles Stone (Columbus) and Eric Holland (Rome).
After years of playing in front of sparse crowds, Kennesaw State has finally gained a foothold in the community. Once the fans realized what kind of team was playing in the Convocation Center, the crowds have grown consistently to the point there were near-sellouts against Liberty, Queens and Lipscomb.
Less than 24 hours following the semifinal win, and more than two days before tip-off against Liberty in the title game, very few tickets remain. It is likely to sell out by Saturday, despite it being the beginning of spring break on campus and the fact that it will be nationally televised on ESPN2.
Abdur-Rahim is thankful for the support from the community. He said he loves to see the Convocation Center full and rocking, making it a true home-court advantage. The team has rewarded the faithful by going 14-1 at home, and the best part is that nearly the entire team is slated to return again next year.
Abdur-Rahim said he wanted to make Kennesaw State into Cobb County's team.
"I don't want to have to have people in the area drive an hour or two to have to see high-quality basketball," he said.
Consider that done. With no other Peach State program expected to make the NCAA Tournament, barring a Cinderella run, Abdur-Rahim may be on the verge of making the Owls Georgia's team, too, because they are truly the best team in the state.
John Bednarowski is the sports editor of the Marietta Daily Journal and the former president of the Associated Press Sports Editors. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @cobbfballfri or @jbednarowski.