KENNESAW — The Kennesaw State men’s basketball team is ready to start the Amir Abdur-Rahim era.
The Owls will do so on the road perennial NCAA tournament team Creighton tonight, and will be the first of three straight home games to open the season. But while the team and the coaches are ready to finally get the season started, Abdur-Rahim said he is trying to keep an even balance heading into his first game as a head coach.
“I try to see the big picture,” said Abdur-Rahim, a former Wheeler High School standout and former Georgia assistant. “Is it exciting to coach my first game as a Division I head coach, absolutely. But it’s our first game as a staff, and I know I have to keep focus of what is ahead.”
When he took over the team in the spring, Abdur-Rahim knew his first season was about getting to know his players and putting in his system. It also entails making sure his student-athletes are keeping up with the student part of the deal. He calls it a culture year — the things that create a true team.
“From conditioning to study hall to the classroom,” he said. “Our guys show up everyday willing to work.”
That work continues on the floor as the Owls continue to learn how to play with one another. He said the team chemistry is good, but he needs them to communicate better and learn to trust one another when the pressure is on.
Abdur-Rahim takes over a team that went 6-26 a year ago, and 3-13 in the ASUN. The Owls return their top two scorers — 5-foot-10 guard Tyler Hooker, who averaged 19 points a game and 6-4 guard Danny Lewis who averaged 11. The new coach said he wants to play uptempo, but the strength of his team in 2019-20 will be on the defensive end of the floor.
“We spent most of our time working on defense,” Abdur-Rahim said about the offseason preparations. “But we want a balanced identity.”
He is really excited about a pair of freshmen newcomers in former Campbell High School standout Terrell Burden and former Newton star Armani Harris. Burden, a 5-10 guard, averaged 23.2 points, 5.8 assists and 5.1 rebounds as a senior for the Spartans, while Harris, a 6-6 forward, averaged 19.7 points, 10.2 rebounds and 2.7 blocks.
Abdur-Rahim said Burden is exciting to watch with the ball in his hands and he said he really likes Harris’ motor and effort in trying to do whatever the team needs the most.
“We are grooming them to have a voice (as leaders),” Abdur-Rahim said.
Other players that are expected to have large roles include Bryson Lockley, a 6-8 forward who averaged 7.1 points and seven rebounds a year ago, 6-9 forward Antonio Spencer (2.0 ppg, 3.6 reb.), 6-4 guard C.J. Washington (1.0 ppg., 1.0 reb), 6-2 guard Adili Kuerban (1.1 ppg) and 6-2 guard John Ogwuche.
“Lockley is a Swiss Army knife,” Abdur-Rahim said. “He’s a skilled kid who at 6-8 can go inside and outside.”
He said Spencer had a rare combination of size and athleticism, Ogwuche is the team’s best perimeter defender and Washington and Kuerban have both shown the ability to shoot the ball.
A key for the team this year will be trying to learn how to win on the road. Last year’s squad was 0-15 away from the KSU Convocation Center, and they will get plenty of early opportunities to change that this season.
After playing at Creighton, Drake and Mercer this first week of the season, they come home to play an exhibition game against Reinhardt on Nov. 18. The Owls then hit the road again for four more games before officially having their home opener on Dec. 7 against Florida International.
“It’s the schedule we inherited,” Abdur-Rahim said. “Nobody is going to feel sorry for us.”
Other non-conference home games include Gardner-Webb (Dec. 13)and Wofford (Dec. 22). The team opens the ASUN schedule on Jan. 2 when it hosts North Florida.
“We have two expectations,” he said. “We are going to play as hard as we can play and we are going to have attention to detail. The team that plays hard and plays together can be successful.”