I was expecting an AJC article before the Liberty game. Here it is:
Amir Abdur-Rahim leading Kennesaw State’s surge into basketball relevance
By Gabriel Burns, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
This state’s best chance of being represented in college basketball’s Big Dance comes from an unexpected source: Kennesaw State. That’s right, Georgia’s clearest path to March Madness isn’t via downtown Atlanta, Athens or even Macon.
It’s via Cobb County, where the Owls, under coach Amir Abdur-Rahim, have orchestrated one of college hoops’ great turnarounds in a short time.
Three years ago, Kennesaw State finished 1-28 during Abdur-Rahim’s debut season. Now, they’re tied for first place in the ASUN. The Owls are 20-7, including 12-2 in conference play. They’re tied with Liberty (21-6, 12-2) atop the ASUN and hosting the Flames on Thursday night.
“It’s just another game to us,” said senior forward Demond Robinson, articulating the simple approach that’s helped fuel the team’s resurgence.
Kennesaw State is already enjoying its first winning season since moving to Division I (2005). It cannot be understated how significantly the program has grown in recent years. From the 2018-19 through 2021- 2022 campaigns, the Owls totaled 25 victories. The team had never achieved a winning season in conference play but had three seasons in which it went winless in the ASUN.
Abdur-Rahim, a Marietta native and Wheeler High School product, has overseen the resurgence. He truly started at the bottom with a one-win campaign. It didn’t get much better with the Owls going 2-29 in the conference his first two seasons.
There was sizable progress a year ago. Kennesaw State was 13-18 (7-9) and rewarded Abdur-Rahim with an extension. Now, the team has quickly flipped from irrelevance into a model program.
“I say this humbly, I’m not surprised at all (by the quick turnaround),” Abdur-Rahim said. “We were very intentional about who we brought into our program. We were very intentional about who we brought into our environment, meaning we were recruiting, it wasn’t just about getting the most talented guy. It wasn’t about that at all. We wanted to get guys that came from really good high school programs – which we have a ton of them in the state – where they were coached, they were held accountable. Not only on the court but in the classroom.
“When you’d talk with their parents, they weren’t helicopter parents. They weren’t just like, ‘My son can’t do anything wrong.’ And that’s where we were really fortunate. We got lucky, to be honest with you. Because we added not only really good players, we added really good families that have allowed us to coach their son. No joke, not in four years have I ever got a call from a parent saying, ‘Well, why aren’t you playing my son?’ They’ve allowed us to care for their sons. They’ve allowed us to coach their sons. And because of that, even with the COVID year, character plus that talent helps you get ahead of the curve pretty quick.”
Before rebuilding the Owls, Abdur-Rahim had proven himself a developer. Among his stops, Abdur-Rahim was an assistant at Texas A&M (2014-18), where the Aggies earned three NCAA Tournament berths and he helped develop big man Robert Williams III, who’s become a defensive centerpiece for the powerhouse Celtics in the NBA.
Abdur-Rahim has worked for Georgia Tech and Georgia, spending one year with the latter before KSU hired him. As a Bulldogs assistant in 2019, Abdur-Rahim was instrumental in Georgia assembling the No. 11 class nationally. Guard Anthony Edwards headlined that class and became the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 NBA draft. Abdur-Rahim was ranked the No. 4 recruiter of 2019, per 247 Sports.
It’s clear why Abdur-Rahim is such an effective recruiter and instructor. He radiates energy. He enjoys conversation, teaching and always does so with a smile. He cares, whether it’s about his individual players, the school or the youth basketball circuit.
“He started off with a great staff,” senior guard Terrell Burden said. “Our assistant coaches and staff are top tier. Shoot, they all can be head coaches one day. They should be, honestly. So I feel like starting there and then going along with the players, getting them from the Georgia area, so I kind of knew some of them when they came in (eight of the 16 players are Georgia natives). I knew some of them being that I played against them. And just us getting older, starting to mesh together and really understand what we like to do on the court, off the court, just getting to know each other personally.”
Abdur-Rahim is passionate about the place he considers home. KSU is 15 minutes from where he once resided in his youth, a school he’s watched grow from “two buildings” into one of the state’s biggest three universities. He’s excited for KSU students, expressing gratefulness for the increasingly enthusiastic home crowds.
The coach says he feels a deeper, meaningful connection with the area – an expression that suggests he doesn’t just see this as a steppingstone.
“(This season’s success) means a lot to me because it puts a spotlight on our university,” Abdur-Rahim said. “When I took this job, I felt like there was a huge parallel between Kennesaw State and myself personally. It felt like we were (an) up-and-coming university, had a lot of great things to offer. People just don’t know too much about it, right? Because it’s kind of tucked away in the suburbs of Atlanta. You know, before you get here, you have to go past Georgia State, you have to go past Georgia Tech. Obviously, UGA is a big deal in the state.
“The way that it parallels to myself, a lot of times when you hear the last name Abdur-Rahim, the first person you think of is Shareef (his brother who spent 13 years in the NBA and was an All-Star for the Hawks in 2001-02). Rightfully so. And so, I felt like when we took this job, it was an opportunity for not only Kennesaw State but myself to make a mark. And it’s really cool that we’re able to do it together. So that, more than anything, I think that’s what the season has meant. Just that myself and our university have made a mark in our state, have made a mark in the Southeast. And we’re hoping to make a mark nationally.”
The Owls are on the verge of achieving that national relevance. They have four games remaining before the ASUN Tournament, beginning with Thursday – the conference’s first matchup of 20-win teams since 2019.