The Kennesaw State Owls are the only team making their Tournament debut in 2023, but the Owls have been waiting for this moment for years.
Left: Photo by Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images, Right: Photo by John Weast/Getty Images

Kennesaw State Won Just 1 Game Three Years Ago. Now, They’re Dancing.

Every year, it seems one or two teams make history by securing their first-ever NCAA men's basketball tournament bid, and this year is no exception. Kennesaw State University, welcome to the Dance.

After two straight years of multiple teams making their debuts, the Owls — out of the Atlantic Sun Conference — are the lone newcomer to the bracket this year. Kennesaw State (26-8 overall, 15-3 conference) was the top seed in the A-Sun Conference Tournament, but it narrowly escaped a quarterfinals upset with a 67-66 win over No. 9 Queens University of Charlotte. It held off fifth-ranked Lipscomb in the semifinals, then won its second game 67-66 as it knocked off No. 2 seed Liberty to claim its first Atlantic Sun championship.

Their reward is a No. 14 seed in the Midwest Region and a date with No. 3 Xavier.

The Long Road to Relevancy for the Owls

Kennesaw State Owls head coach Amir Abdur-Rahim reacts during a college basketball game against the Indiana Hoosiers

Photo by Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Kennesaw State, located in Kennesaw, Georgia, began competing in Division 1 men's basketball in the 2005-06 season, just two years removed from their 2004 Division II national championship. The transition to Division 1, when the Owls became members of the Atlantic Sun Conference, was completed in 2009-10. Next year will actually mark the end of Kennesaw State's tenure in the A-Sun, as it prepares to move to Conference USA.  As a result of that, its football team will transition from the FCS (Football Championship Subdivision) to the FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision).

The Owls had not had a winning season in Division 1 prior to this year. Just three years ago, in fact, Kennesaw State went 1-28 overall and 0-16 in the Atlantic-Sun. Between Feb. 15, 2018, and Jan. 15, 2022, they lost 49 consecutive road games. That included an 0-15 road record in 2018-19, the last season coached by Al Skinner, who finished his illustrious career by coaching the Owls for four years (2015-19).

Only two players remain from the team that went 1-28 in the first season for now-fourth-year head coach Amir Abdur-Rahim, senior guards Terrell Burden and Armani Harris. While Harris has played in just five games, Burden is one of two players to start all 34 games, averaging 13.5 points on 49% shooting, as well as 4.2 assists, 3.1 rebounds and 17 steals per game.

Don't Count on Any Beginner's Luck

Kennesaw State Owls guard Kasen Jennings (13) reacts after fouling out as Indiana Hoosiers forward Race Thompson (25) celebrates during a college basketball game

Photo by Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Over the past two seasons, four teams made their NCAA tournament debuts, and none fared well. New recruits are not often the strongest teams, and the seeding committee hasn't done these programs any favors.

The 2022 tournament saw Longwood University, out of Farmville, Virginia, win the Big South Conference to reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time. At 26-6, Longwood was offered a No. 14 seed and sent to Indianapolis, where it was blown out by 32 points by Tennessee.

Bryant University won the 2022 America East Conference, and the small school from Smithfield, Rhode Island, had to play its way into the field of 64. Unfortunately, the Bulldogs didn't advance out of Dayton, losing to Wright State in their First Four matchup.

The teams that made their tournament debuts in 2021 were equally unsuccessful. The University of Hartford, which had already announced an impending transition from Division 1 to Division 3, won the 2021 America East title. The Hawks (15-8) were just the No. 4 seed in their conference but somehow avoided the First Four. Instead, they got No. 1 Baylor (23-2) and were beaten by 24 points in Indianapolis.

Grand Canyon University claimed the 2021 Western Athletic Conference (WAC) title to punch their first ticket to March Madness. The 17-6 Lopes were sent from Phoenix to Indy as well and battled fiercely before falling to No. 2 Iowa by just 12 points.

The Lopes are the lone team of the four to make a return trip to the Big Dance after their debut. They won the WAC again this season and are preparing for a first-round matchup against No. 3 Gonzaga on Friday in Denver. The Bulldogs are 15.5-point favorites.

The List is Dwindling...For Now

Kennesaw State Owls head coach Amir Abdur-Rahim reacts during a college basketball game against the Indiana Hoosiers

Photo by Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

With Kennesaw State off the list, there are now 35 eligible teams that have never played in the NCAA Tournament. That group includes five teams from the Summit League (Denver, Kansas City, Omaha, South Dakota and Western Illinois), a conference that has been dominated by Oral Roberts and the tandem of South and North Dakota State.

Four teams from the America East (Maine, UMass Lowell, University of New Hampshire, New Jersey Institute of Technology) are still looking for their first appearance, where Vermont has won four of the last six years. The WAC (Chicago State, Texas Rio Grande Valley and Utah Valley), Big South (High Point, Presbyterian, USC Upstate) and A-Sun (Central Arkansas, North Alabama, Stetson) each have three teams looking to make their tournament debut.

While it's down to 35 schools this year, that list is set to grow back to over 40 in the next few years. Ten teams — Bellarmine, Lindenwood, Merrimack, Queens, Southern Indiana, Stonehill, St. Thomas, Tarleton State, UC San Diego and Utah Tech — are transitioning to Division 1 and were not yet eligible for the 2023 tournament.

One other key feature of the list? No Power 5 teams. With most of the at-large bids going to the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC, it's not a surprise that there are no teams left in college basketball's most prolific conferences that have yet to dance.

MORE: March Madness: Every Region's Potential First Round Upsets