Kennesaw State’s path from one-win season to the NCAA Tournament

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Even when Kennesaw State suffered through winning only one game in Amir Abdur-Rahim’s first season as coach, the Owls believed that one day they would compete for a berth in the NCAA Tournament.

Otherwise, Owls guard Chris Youngblood said, what’s the point?

“If I didn’t come here with that mindset, I’ll be letting my teammates and coaches down,” said Youngblood, a junior guard from East Coweta High School.

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Three seasons of steady and planned progress later, Kennesaw State is going to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history. The Owls defeated Liberty 67-66 on Sunday to win the ASUN Tournament and secure their automatic berth. Kennesaw State will learn its first opponent and other game information Sunday.

“Most people will look at a one-win season as a failure,” Abdur-Rahim said. “That season in my eyes is the reason why we sit here today as a champion.”

The one win that season – 85-61 over Gardner-Webb in December 2019 – brought the players together. The connections formed between the players during that season made them tougher, made them work even harder to be there for their teammates.

“We were able to give these kids a vision and a plan for how we got here,” Abdur-Rahim said. “And so when we came in, and handle a loss just like we handled a win, I thought it meant the world to us. So really proud of that year more than anything.”

ExploreKennesaw State makes history with first trip to NCAA Tournament

Abdur-Rahim said the coaching focused on the players doing things off the court as a team, such as bowling, eating at Taco Mac, anything to keep them together.

Youngblood said he knew the group had the talent. They needed to learn how to handle the adversity. Twenty-eight losses are a lot of lessons.

After the one-win season, the total steadily increased to five in 2020-21, 13 in 2021-22 and 26 this season.

“It’s like I said into last summer, it’s not gonna be because of our ability or talent next year for us, it’s going to be about our connection and how we fought,” Abdur-Rahim said. “And to their credit, they stuck through it when they could have left, when it was cool to go somewhere else.”

Youngblood said he received text messages from coaches on other teams asking if he was planning to stay at Kennesaw State. Youngblood would always show those messages to Abdur-Rahim to prove to him that he believed in his coach and the program.

“That was part of it that ‘we can go get this done,’” Abdur-Rahim said. “But I think the big part of it was just that we told them the truth on everything.”