Funny enough, the moment that Kennesaw State coach Amir Abdur-Rahim knew his team could make the NCAA Tournament came after the Owls suffered a 34-point shellacking by San Diego State in mid-December.
Despite Christmas break, the team stayed on campus for practice.
Abdur-Rahim had remembered watching guard Terrell Burden, now a senior, hesitate to use his voice on the court as a freshman, during the Owls’ 1-28 campaign in Abdur-Rahim’s first season: “I would give him the play call. He’s just dribbling the ball up the court. The other four guys are like, ‘What are we running?’ And I’m like, ‘Rell, you’ve gotta tell them the play.’”
That image shattered as Burden watched a teammate (Abdur-Rahim said he thinks it may have been guard Brandon Stroud) give up on a play without diving on the floor for the ball.
“And Terrell jumps on them. … He just goes,” Abdur-Rahim remembered. “... Brandon stood up and was like ‘I got you, 1,’” referring to Burden’s jersey number. “That was the moment for me.”
Kennesaw State’s turnaround under Abdur-Rahim has been remarkable, from that 1-28 record in the 2019-20 season, to 5-19 then 13-18 the following seasons, to now 26-8, the ASUN champions are about to make the school’s first Division I NCAA Tournament appearance. It gets even harder from here, though, as the Owls are sure to face a heavy-hitting, well-known first-round opponent no matter their draw on Selection Sunday.
Killer upsets and magical Cinderella runs help the “March Madness” moniker ring true, and the Owls welcome the role of the underdog. Anything can happen in the NCAA Tournament, especially if a team nabs that first upset win and gets hot.
“I’ve been the underdog my whole life. … I enjoy every bit of it,” Burden told a crowd of media members Wednesday. “People overlooking us, I feel like that makes the story 10 times better when you’re the underdog.”
Burden remembers watching No. 15-seed St. Peter’s last year, as it stunned the country by knocking off No. 2-seed Kentucky in the first round, then No. 7 Murray State in the second round, then No. 3 Purdue in the Sweet 16.
“Watching that, I want that to be us,” Burden said. “Not saying that it has to be, in order for us to prove ourselves, but I feel like that would just take us to the next level, honestly. … I’ve got 100% faith in our team. Always. One hundred percent. No matter who we play, we’re going to give ‘em a fight.”
For forward Demond Robinson, the words “Cinderella run” bring to mind Loyola-Chicago, which went from zero NCAA Tournament appearances since 1985 to the Final Four in 2018, launching the school into the national spotlight (and introducing the country to the beloved Sister Jean, of course).
Now it’s the Owls’ turn to try to raise some eyebrows.
“I’d guess all the guys can honestly say they love being the underdog and love stunning people. … It’s going to take the same thing it took for all our other games,” Robinson said. “It’s going to take our heart, our culture, our brotherhood. It’s going to take us coming together and leaning on one another. That’s what it’s going to take for us to do a lot of things that this program has never done.
“... We weren’t supposed to be in this position. A lot of people thought that we weren’t going to be in this position, but we are in this position, and we’re going to keep going.”
Kennesaw State will hold a watch party at its Convocation Center on Sunday, with doors opening to the public at 5 p.m., as it finds out who and where it will play in the first round.
The Owls’ 26 wins should help them as they await their seeding, a huge factor in the path they’ll face. It’s a little difficult to prepare without knowing who they’ll play yet, but Abdur-Rahim doesn’t want his team to focus on the external.
“It’s all about draw in the tournament. … I’m hoping for a 14, if they love us enough, maybe a 13, but it’s all about matchup,” Abdur-Rahim said. “But again, we’re not going to play a bad team. Whether you’re a 15-seed, 14-seed, 13-seed, it doesn’t matter. You’re not going to play a bad team. Our guys, we’ve been talking about emotional maturity a lot. Our emotional maturity is going to have to be at an all-time high next week in order to win a game. Once you win that first game, anything can happen.”
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