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Balanced Xavier begins tournament mission with No. 14 seed Kennesaw State

By Sportsnaut,

2023-03-14

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Three years ago, Amir Abdur-Rahim had just completed his first season as Kennesaw State’s head coach with a 1-28 record.

Yet, arguably, Abdur-Rahim faced an easier rehabilitation project than Xavier head coach Sean Miller – who was in professional and NCAA purgatory at Arizona after being accused of major violations.

Now both are the toasts of the college basketball industry as third-seeded Xavier (25-9) and 14th-seeded Kennesaw State (26-8) prepare for Friday’s Midwest Regional first-round game in Greensboro, N.C.

Miller, who sat out last season after being fired by Arizona in April 2022, has led the Musketeers to their first NCAA Tournament since 2018.

“I’m excited to get back there,” Miller told the Cincinnati Enquirer. “The one thing is from my perspective with our team, I’m so proud of these players and our coaches. To be 25-9 with the schedule we played, to be 15-5 (in the Big East), to deal with Zach (Freemantle’s) injury, to come here and get to the championship game, all that’s good.”

Not only are the Musketeers back, but CBS analyst Clark Kellogg picked them to reach the Final Four during Sunday’s selection show.

Anything seems possible for Miller’s squad, which figured out a way to recover without Freemantle – the team’s No. 2 scorer (15.2 ppg) and No. 1 rebounder (8.1 rpg) who was lost for the season Jan. 28 with a foot injury.

Xavier went 3-4 in the immediate wake of Freemantle’s absence, but recovered to win five of its last six. The only loss came in the Big East championship game to Marquette.

Indiana transfer Jerome Hunter has stepped into the lineup and averaged 9.4 points and 6.0 rebounds – serving as the perfect complement to standout guards Souley Boum (16.5 ppg) and Colby Jones (15.2 ppg) and versatile center Jack Nunge (14.1 ppg, 7.8 rpg).

Kennesaw State, meanwhile, has gone from 1 to 5 to 13 to 26 wins in Abdur-Rahim’s four years at the helm. The Owls capped their first winning season in 18 years of Division I play by taking advantage of their home court to stun Liberty 67-66 in the ASUN championship game.

Five-foot-10 senior point guard Terrell Burden (13.5 ppg, 4.2 apg), who hit the free throw with 0.7 seconds left to edge Liberty in the ASUN title game, is the only player who remains from the 1-28 team that finished the 2019-20 season on a 20-game losing streak.

“My emotions have been at an all-time high,” Burden said. “I’m just excited just being what we’ve been through and seeing where we are right now – I’m just excited. I’m just embracing the journey with my boys. It’s a blessing to be here with all 15 of them and the five coaches. We’re just going to keep things going.”

If the Owls are going to extend their journey beyond Friday, then they’ll need to slow one of the nation’s best offenses. Not only do the Musketeers rank fifth nationally in 3-point shooting (39.8 percent), they stand ninth in offensive efficiency with 119.3 points per 100 possessions.

“We played at Indiana,” Abdur-Rahim said. “We played at San Diego State. We played at Florida. The one thing I know about our group is (this level of excellence and physicality) is not going to be foreign to us. We’ll prepare and we’ll be ready.”

–Field Level Media

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