Thanks for the invitation to the big dance.

Yes, Kennesaw State is eager to attend the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, and it understands that it’s a big deal to be on the guest list.

No, the Owls don’t want to hear that they should be happy just to be there.

In other words, let’s forget all the talk about a Cinderella story.

Kennesaw State believes it more than belongs in the NCAA Tournament. It will get a chance to prove it when it faces Xavier on Friday in a first-round game in Greensboro, North Carolina. Kennesaw State (26-8) is the ASUN regular-season and tournament champion and a No. 14 seed. Xavier (25-9) is the runner-up in the Big East tournament and a No. 3 seed. Xavier is favored by 11.5 points.

“March naturally brings those monikers – the Cinderellas, the upsets,” Kennesaw State coach Amir Abdur-Rahim told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Tuesday. “For us, I don’t look at it that way. We get up. We strap our shoes and take it to the max every day, just like they do. If someone wants us to be their Cinderella story, great. But when we win this game on Friday, it’s not going to be anything that is surprising to us. If we make a buzzer-beater to win, I’m sure the guys will run on the floor. But if we win by six or seven points, whatever it may be, they will get up from their chairs and walk to the handshake line like they’re supposed to be there because they expect to be there.”

Kennesaw State's Amir Abdur-Rahim coaches during practice Tuesday. Jason Getz /

Credit: Jason Getz /

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Credit: Jason Getz /

Every team enters a season with confidence and high hopes. At some point, the early-season expectations become an attainable goal. For Kennesaw State, that happened at different times for different people.

Kasen Jennings pointed to a three-game tournament at Appalachian State in November. The Owls defeated Southeastern Louisiana 72-68 and then the host 71-67. However, they lost the finale, 85-61 to Campbell.

“The goal was to go 3-0, but we went 2-1,” said Jennings, a junior guard. “I really saw our team come together in a huge way. I saw what we could do later in the season. Just a glimpse. There was a lot of adversity thrown at us. I saw how we responded. The way we responded was special.”

For Abdur-Rahim, it was a two-game road stretch against North Florida and Queens (N.C.) in early January. The Owls lost at North Florida 89-86 on a half-court buzzer beater. They rebounded to defeat Queens 76-67.

“In the past, a shot like that, a loss like that, it can rattle your confidence,” Abdur-Rahim said. “But we went into the Queens game … we went in and won that game, and that was the point I was like, ‘OK, we’re for real.’ Not because we won the game, but because we had that resolve to bounce back from such a tough loss. That was a point in the season when I thought, ‘OK, we’ve got a chance to be pretty good.’”

T-shirts are available for purchase at the KSU bookstore. Jason Getz /

Credit: Jason Getz /

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Credit: Jason Getz /

From there the confidence continued to grow. Kennesaw State finished the season with a school-record 15-3 mark in ASUN Conference play. It won the conference tournament with a win over Liberty 67-66 on a last-second free throw. A campus-wide, and beyond, celebration ensued. The Owls earned the automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history. The victory capped a four-year turnaround from a 1-28 record only three seasons earlier. Oh, how the times and fortunes of the program have changed. And therein lies the desire to label this team a Cinderella. However, there was lot of hard work and determination that went into the past four seasons. This is not a come-out-of-nowhere story. It’s a journey.

“It was just one game at a game,” junior guard Brandon Stroud said. “When we got to Liberty in the (ASUN) championship game it was OK, but it was just one game at a time. Just another basketball game. That’s my mindset. Coming into Friday, it’s just another game. Not to put pressure on myself.”

Kennesaw State will see the team off Wednesday afternoon for the bus ride to Greensboro. The team will practice at the Greensboro Coliseum on Thursday. Game time is 12:40 p.m. Friday on truTV. Ian Eagle, Jim Spanarkel and Evan Washburn will call the game.

Abdur-Rahim said he loves the Friday-Sunday schedule as it gives an extra day of preparation. The Kennesaw State-Xavier winner will face either Iowa State or the winner of Tuesday’s play-in game between Mississippi State and Pitt.