Rodgers, Peterson playing pivital roles for KSU

Mar. 15—KENNESAW — When players are asked to take on a different role — especially when it means less playing time — feelings sometimes get hurt.

In today's transfer portal age of college sports, those who feel slighted look to go somewhere else. Sometimes, it is to regain that court time. Other times, it is because they feel disrespected.

Others reach down deep and find things that help their character develop. They become leaders as their teammates see how they adjust and manage to remain positive.

The latter is the trek that seniors Spencer Rodgers and Alex Peterson have taken, and it has helped to turn Kennesaw State into a championship program which is making its first trip to the NCAA Tournament. The Owls will face Xavier in the first round at 12:40 p.m. Friday in Greensboro, North Carolina.

As recently as the 2020-21 season, Rodgers and Peterson were starters for Kennesaw State. Rodgers was the team's leading scorer, averaging 16.3 points per game, while Peterson averaged 7.3 points and 5.8 rebounds per game. Despite their good numbers, the Owls were only went 5-19.

It was the team's second year under coach Amir Abdur-Rahim, but it was really the first in which he was able to bring in a lot of talent, signing a high school class that included guards Chris Youngblood, Brandon Stroud and Kasen Jennings. Before the 2021-22 season, the team added forward Demond Robinson as a transfer from Murray State, while guards Simeon Cottle and Quincy Ademokoya came in before this season.

The influx of talent has led Kennesaw State to the best record in its Division I history at 26-8, and Rodgers and Peterson will have a chance to end their college basketball careers on national television, playing in one of college sports' most prominent events.

"If you had told me that last year, I would have looked at you and said, 'Huh?'" Peterson said. "March Madness for a college basketball player is the pinnacle. It's insane."

If Rodgers and Peterson never adjusted to their new roles, Kennesaw State's emergence on a national scale likely would not happen.

Over the last two years, Rodgers has seen his numbers drop from 16.3 points per game to 10.5 and then 6.3. Yet, Abdur-Rahim used him as the first player off the bench for much of the season, and following Jennings' concussion late in the season, Rodgers has assumed a role in the starting five.

On many occasions, Abdur-Rahim has said Rodgers is going to have a long professional career playing somewhere, and it is because his of the Buford native's mature approach to the game.

"You just have to find value in little things," Rodgers said. "You have to realize you don't have to be a leading scorer to be valuable."

Rodgers has proven that on many occasions this season. Two big 3-pointers against Liberty in the ASUN championship game were key in the Owls posting a 67-66 victory. He had three games in a row in which he finished with 11 points — two- and three-point wins over Jacksonville State and the team's regular-season win over Liberty.

In nearly every case this season, when Kennesaw State needed a scoring spark off the bench, Rodgers delivered.

"Spencer Rodgers is the ultimate professional," Abdur-Rahim said. "I've been saying this all year, two years ago and even a year ago, he was a focal point of what we did on offense, and he still is, but now his role has changed and he's coming off the bench. But at no point did he have his head down, or his attitude or effort been bad, so when you're that type of kid, you're going to show up for a team at some point, and we're really fortunate (that he has)."

For Peterson, this was actually the second time his role had changed.

During his time at Missouri State University-West Plains, his role changed as new players came into the program and as a younger player had a different outlook.

"I went from starting to not playing at all," Peterson said. "As a kid, I did not handle it well. (At Kennesaw State), I was starting every game, but they brought in Desmond, and I knew what was going to happen. This time, I poured everything I could into my teammates. I wanted to handle it the right way and be a man about it this time."

Like Rodgers, Peterson is one of the first players off the bench and can pick up where Robinson may have left off.

Against Lipscomb in the ASUN semifinals, Peterson went 4-for-4 from the floor for 10 points, pulled down six rebounds and added two assists. He went 5-for-5 and scored 10 points against Jacksonville State, and he may have had the biggest defensive stop of the year in the first game against Liberty.

After multiple switches, Peterson ended up on Flames sharp-shooter Darius McGhee. In the midst of a 43-point effort, McGhee was isolated 1-on-1 on the 6-foot-7 Peterson, who did not let McGhee go left or right.

McGhee ended up taking an off-balance 3-pointer that never had a chance. Kennesaw State got the rebound and was able to put the game away in the moments after.

Coming off the floor, Peterson told his team, "I've got him the rest of the game." It wasn't the matchup Abdur-Rahim wanted over the last minute-plus of the game, but he admired Peterson's zeal.

"Alex probably doesn't get enough credit for what he's meant to our program. You're talking about a guy that paves his way to junior college his first year, gets a scholarship his second year," Abdur-Rahim said. "We all need help getting to where we go and the things we do, but if there is someone that is the epitome of self-made, I'd say it's him."

For both players, they know whenever Kennesaw State's run in the NCAA Tournament comes to an end, it will be their final time playing college basketball. Rodgers in fact does want to play pro ball, whether it is in the U.S. or overseas. Peterson is more apt to start his post-basketball career, which, in the long run, could bring him back to the sideline as a coach.

Because of that, they are trying to soak everything in as they head to Greensboro.

"I'm definitely looking forward," Rodgers said, "but we've enjoyed every moment from the last couple (weeks)."