KENNESAW, Ga. — Kennesaw State sent its men's basketball team off to the NCAA Tournament with the hopes of seeing the Owls soar in March Madness.
The school is making its first-ever trip to March Madness, after winning the Atlantic Sun tournament.
Cheerleaders, the pep band, donors and other supporters were on hand Wednesday to see the Owls load and board the buses to Greensboro, N.C. to face Xavier University on Friday. That game will begin at 12:40 p.m. and is being broadcast on truTV.
The Owls are the 14th-seeded team in the Midwest Regional, while the Musketeers are the third seed in that quadrant of the bracket. If Kennesaw can pull off the upset, they would play either 6-seed Iowa State or 11-seed Pittsburgh in the following round.
Senior forward Demond Robinson said the team has been through adversity and is now ready to take on the competition in the NCAA Tournament.
"This feeling is incredible. I’m honestly happy for everybody, I’m honestly happy for myself," Robinson said. "I can say the job is not finished. We’re not done, that’s my feeling."
Robinson the road to victory means staying grounded.
"We just gotta focus, we just gotta concentrate, do the small things, the details to be able to keep our momentum up," he said. "That’s all we gotta do.”
Watch the celebrations below.
How the Owls got here
Owls head coach Amir Abdur-Rahim led an all-time turnaround. In his first season in 2019-20, the Owls sputtered to a 1-28 record. This season, a 26-8 mark -- including 15 conference wins -- has led to the state's college basketball radar bypassing the likes of struggling Georgia and Georgia Tech.
"When you have a vision, alright, and you know that there's more in the tank and that the way we built this thing we're capable of going into that tournament and winning," Abdur-Rahim said. "You have to keep it as normal as possible,"
People call the Owls' first appearance in the NCAA Tournament this year's 'Cinderella story' -- but Abdur-Rahim says it's more than that.
"They don’t see the extra work these guys put in on their own. We have a player-driven program, and it’s player-driven simply because these guys allow themselves to be held accountable and they hold each other accountable," he said. "When you’ve been through some of the things we’ve been through together as a group, it builds tough skin, resolve and perseverance.”
What this means for Kennesaw State
Milton Overton, the athletics director at Kennesaw State, said going to March Madness provides great exposure for the school of 43,000 students. Kennesaw State is the third largest public university in Georgia and generates about $1.6 billion in economic impact on the state of Georgia and the Southeast region.
"It provides the type of visibility that we want to really showcase what Kennesaw State is about," Overton said. "We’re here to be a beacon in higher education and help people gel and grow together. It’s a phenomenal opportunity, gives us so much lift in our community, and we’re just so happy and thankful for this opportunity.”
The Owls have been battle-tested this season, including losses against some top-tier power five schools.
"Although we lost our non-conference games this year, I'm glad we lost them because you learn from it," Robinson said. "We went to Florida, Indiana, San Diego State like we're ready for anybody we play next week. We're very confident going into this tournament."
Robinson said while many pundits are favoring Xavier Friday, he believed in his teammates and his 'why' to propel them forward to victory.
“We just embrace the underdog role. We just remember our reason why, remember where we came from," Robinson said. “My why is my family, most of all my little sister. I’ve been through a lot when I was in high school. A lot of deaths through high school, it hurt me and I had to take care of kids. My seniors, it’s their last year. I also have to play for them and my brothers beside me. It’s always going to be about my brothers beside me.”