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Kennesaw State brings rags-to-riches story to 1st NCAA party

KENNESAW, Ga. (AP) — Kennesaw State is officially accepting bandwagon fans as the latest NCAA Tournament Cinderella team.

“I support it,” junior guard Brandon Stroud said Wednesday. “Let's go. Jump on now!”

Few teams have landed in March Madness with more compelling rags-to-riches credentials.

The Owls finished 1-28 overall and 0-16 in the ASUN Conference in coach Amir Abdur-Rahim's first season in 2019-20. Having left Division II in 2005, Kennesaw State never had a winning Division I record before this season, when they improved to 26-8 by beating Liberty 67-66 in Sunday's conference tournament championship.

The Owls are suddenly drawing a media crowd — including three Atlanta TV crews before their practice Wednesday — and the spotlight will grow brighter Sunday, when the public will be invited to an selection show viewing party at the KSU Convocation Center.

“This is really cool from when we started four years ago and maybe had only one student reporter here,” Abdur-Rahim said.

Junior Chris Youngblood was part of Abdur-Rahim's first full recruiting class following the one-win season. Youngblood said Abdur-Rahim “most definitely” talked about the team's potential to reach March Madness as part of his recruiting pitch.

“I probably wouldn't have come here if he didn't believe in that,” said Youngblood, who leads the Owls averaging 14.7 points per game.

Abdur-Rahim said he began to believe the dream could be realized this season by the way his players, especially point guard Terrell Burden, responded to an ugly 88-54 loss at San Diego State on Dec. 12.

“Normally, you get beat like that, it can shake you a little bit, make you question what you're doing,” Abdur-Rahim said.

Burden, who had been mostly quiet early in his career, set the pace for the team at the next practice after a teammate failed to dive for a loose ball.

“Terrell jumps him,” Abdur-Rahim said. “I was like OK. That was the moment for me.”

The 5-foot-10 Burden, second on the team with 13.5 points per game, is one of four guards in the starting lineup. The Owls are likely to face a size disadvantage in their first NCAA Tournament game — no matter the matchup.

That only adds to the underdog outlook that Burden and his teammates are eager to embrace.

“No matter who we play, we're going to give them a fight,” Burden said. “... I love being the underdog. I've been the underdog my whole life.”

Abdur-Rahim is the younger brother of Shareef Abdur-Rahim, who played 13 years in the NBA and now is the NBA G League president. Shareef's son, Jabri, is a guard at Georgia, where Amir was an assistant on Tom Crean's staff before taking the Kennesaw State job.

At Georgia, Amir Abdur-Rahim landed star recruit Anthony Edwards, the No. 1 overall pick by Minnesota in the 2020 NBA draft.

The Owls' roster doesn't have top-rated NBA prospects, but Abdur-Rahim believes his team deserves to be respected as more than a 16 seed.

“I'm hoping for a 14. If they love us enough, maybe a 13," Abdur-Rahim said, adding that the Owls are "going to play a great team next week. ... It's all about draw in the tournament. I'm not here to politic for a seed.”

He has told his players to “put the headphones on, and put that noise cancellation up to 10” when preparing for the NCAA Tournament.

But with a compelling story like theirs, Youngblood said: "It's tough to keep the headphones on in times like this.”

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