‘It’s nuts’: How Kennesaw State pulled off one of college basketball’s biggest turnarounds

When Amir Abdur-Rahim arrived at Kennesaw State in the spring of 2019, he was aware the program had history. Sure, it didn’t come at the Division I level, but it was still a program with a national championship in 2004.

Yet when he walked into the team’s home arena four years ago, there was no evidence of it.

The team’s Division II national championship banner was in a storage closet. As soon as Abdur-Rahim found it, he went to the school’s facilities people and asked that it be put up in the rafters.

“That was a great symbol of special things can be done here,” Abdur-Rahim told ESPN on Monday morning. “We used it. Not just with recruiting, but with our team. There are people that have been here that care about this program. It was a place with no identity, but was on the cusp of being able to do something real special.”

The Owls now have two more banners to put up alongside it, sharing the Atlantic Sun regular-season championship with Liberty, and then punching their ticket to the NCAA tournament on Sunday after beating the Flames in the conference tournament title game. They await next Sunday’s announcement of where they’ll land in the field of 68.

Sunday’s victory capped one of the biggest turnarounds in recent college basketball history in which Kennesaw State went from one win in Abdur-Rahim’s first season, to 26 this season.

“It’s nuts, to be honest with you,” he said.

Here’s some perspective on the extent of Abdur-Rahim’s rebuilding job at Kennesaw: Not only is this the program’s first NCAA tournament appearance since moving to Division I in 2005, it’s the program’s first season finishing above .500 in Division I, period. This year’s team set the program record for wins in a season in mid-January.

For a coach who spent the previous five years on high-major staffs at Texas A&M and Georgia, taking over one of the worst teams in college basketball was a dramatically different experience. Abdur-Rahim didn’t want to just flip the program in one year and then have to start from scratch again every season, though. The process was going to take longer. He wanted to take the long-term view.

“This is as simple as I can put it: Every job is not a transfer portal job,” he said. “Some jobs have to be built with high school kids, to be able to sustain it over time. When you’re building a different team every year, everyone’s buy-in is not the same. We wanted to build with high school kids, get older with the same guys. I’ve been fortunate and blessed to be able to do that.”

Abdur-Rahim and his staff only had two available scholarships when they took over Kennesaw State. Their first two recruits were starting guard Terrell Burden, and reserve forward Armani Harris. The next recruiting cycle, the Owls signed Chris Youngblood, Brandon Stroud, Spencer Rodgers and Kasen Jennings. On Sunday, five of the six players signed in Abdur-Rahim’s first two years saw at least 20 minutes.

The road to the NCAA tournament wasn’t without growing pains, of course. Kennesaw State was one of the worst teams in the country in 2020 and 2021. The Owls went 1-28 overall in 2020, winning just one ASUN game. The next season, they improved only slightly, finishing 5-19 overall and 2-13 in the league.

The transfer portal started becoming more and more of a temptation.

“After our second year, I was like, we gotta get older. We just gotta go get as talented as we can possibly get,” Abdur-Rahim said. “Ben Fletcher, my associate head coach, he goes, ‘Nope.’ What do you mean, nope? ‘That’s not how you said you wanted to do it. We’re right there. We’re not panicking now. We’re not going to break character now, let’s stay committed and keep developing.'”

It worked both ways — the talented young players Abdur-Rahim recruited those first couple of seasons could have pursued other options, too.

“A lot of outside people were saying, what are you doing here, why don’t you enter the portal?” Burden told ESPN. “It was all going to come together. Running away from problems gets you nowhere, it teaches you nothing. Embrace the journey through the pain and the unsuccessful seasons before you have the successful ones.”

In 2021-22, Kennesaw State finally showed signs of life, improving to 7-9 in conference play and notching wins against Bellarmine and Jacksonville, last season’s ASUN tournament championship finalists. Through it all, the team’s core remained intact — resulting in a 25-win improvement in just three seasons.

“It was only a matter of time if we kept the same group,” Burden said. “Learning how to win is the hardest part. Once you learn how to win, doing it is easier than learning it.

“That was the most important thing,” he added, referring to this year’s juniors and seniors remaining together from the outset. “We’ve all been through the same thing. Those are my brothers now. Keeping the core group, that meant more to me than people understand. It’s easy to say, you’re a young group, go get some guys out of the transfer portal and get older. But when you’re able to mesh together as a young unit, it makes it 10 times better.”

In discussing the remarkable turnaround, both Abdur-Rahim and Burden harkened back to a moment during their first season together. The Owls lost on Senior Day to NJIT, with both Burden and Harris sidelined due to injury. As the team was walking off the floor, the then-first-year head coach went up to his two recruits at center court. He pointed to the sparse crowd of around 1,000 people and had a clear message:

Don’t get used to this, because it’s not always going to be like this.

The crowd won’t be like this, the atmosphere won’t be like this, the team and the culture won’t be like this. It’s going to change when we start winning.

Burden and Harris remembered the moment four years later on Sunday — in front of a school-record attendance of 3,805. Both went up to Abdur-Rahim and thanked him.

“To see it come to fruition, it has a different meaning,” Burden said. “It was a different feeling … that was the perfect time to remind him.”

With a week until Selection Sunday, the biggest concern for Kennesaw right now is when to put the banners up, whether it happens this week or at the start of next season. But they certainly won’t be in a storage closet.

Said Abdur-Rahim: “They’ll go right next to that 2004 national championship banner.”

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