Déjà vu: Fletcher’s Kennesaw State following same path as 2003 Trojans
Published 2:03 pm Thursday, March 16, 2023
It’s déjà vu for Kennesaw State Owls associate head coach Ben Fletcher, whose team comes into the NCAA Tournament as a No. 14 seed facing off against No. 3 seed Xavier, much like he did as a Troy Trojan exactly 20 years ago.
Fletcher was a member of the 2003 Troy Trojans squad that made the first NCAA Division I Tournament in school history. The 2023 Owls team is also the first team in that school’s history to make the NCAA Tournament. Troy also went into the tournament as the No. 14 seed, facing No. 3 Xavier that year, as well.
“As soon as it came across (the screen), I had several of my teammates calling me and saying, ‘You have to go get them for us.’ It’s been surreal,” Fletcher told The Messenger. “It’s been great. These guys deserve it. They’ve been hard workers all year long and it didn’t start this year. It started when this class got here two years ago. These guys went through some adversity in the first couple of years, learning how to win and how to play at this level.”
Fletcher, a Selma native, came to Troy in 2001 and went on to be known as one of the best players in school history. He averaged 13.4 points per game in his career and earned All-Atlantic Sun honors and Atlantic Sun Tournament MVP as a senior. He also broke the school’s three-point record during his Troy career.
Following his playing days, Fletcher stayed on as a graduate assistant and then became an assistant coach under legendary coach Don Maestri in 2005. He continued on as a member of the Troy staff under Phil Cunningham through 2019 when he joined the staff at Kennesaw State. Along with playing on Troy’s first NCAA Tournament team, he was a member of the coaching staff on the 2017 Trojan team that also made the tournament.
“I tell people all the time, I was there for 18 years, so I had a chance to be a part of a lot of successful teams as a player and coach,” Fletcher said of his time at Troy. “I got to Troy in 2001 and we won a regular season championship in 2002 and in 2003 we won the (conference tournament) and went to the NCAA Tournament. As a graduate assistant the next year, we won the regular season championship again.
“To come back and do it again in 2009-2010 and win the Sun Belt in a totally new league for us, was special. To win the tournament in 2017 under Phil Cunningham and play against Duke in March Madness was also special.”
As special as it was making the NCAA Tournament as a player, Fletcher says making the “big dance” as a coach means even more.
“I think as a coach, it’s exciting just because you know the magnitude of it,” he said. “I think as a player, you really don’t know how it affects the university. So, you don’t know how big it really is. I think it’s probably more special to me as a coach because you understand and realize the affect it can have on the community and the university as a whole.”
Fletcher pointed to Maestri as being one of the biggest influences on his career.
“He’s meant everything to my career,” he emphasized. “He’s the guy I still talk to, to this day. He’s always there with advice when you need it. He’s just been a great mentor and I don’t know where I would be without him.”
Maestri feels a sense of pride seeing one of his former players – and assistants – having so much success.
“It’s great to see Ben getting to enjoy the NCAA Tournament again,” Maestri said. “If you follow Ben’s career, after I left (Troy) he stayed on as an assistant coach with Cunningham and signed the best player in the history of the school, Wesley Person Jr. (Person) is the only 2,000-point scorer in the history of Troy. As an assistant, he moved from there to be the top assistant at Kennesaw and recruited the best players they’ve ever had. His career has been really outstanding.”
The similarities between the 2003 Troy team and 2023 Kennesaw State squad don’t end at their seeding and opponent in the NCAA Tournament. Along with being the first time the two schools made it to the tournament, Kennesaw State won the Atlantic Sun Championship, which was also the conference that Troy won in 2003 before moving to the Sun Belt years later. The 2003 Troy team also won the most games in school history, just as the 2023 Kennesaw State has done.
“To be a part of two teams going to the NCAA Tournament for the first time is special but it’s also eerie in how similar both situations really are,” Fletcher said. “That’s been really cool. I’ve referenced a lot my time with Coach Maestri as a player. This team had a very similar journey.
“I just kept saying this feels just like when we got to the tournament at Troy. We would never say something like that to the team because you don’t want them thinking about that, you want them thinking about the game in front of them, but we sat in coaching meetings and I would say ‘It’s so similar, man.’ We have a similar makeup as a team. We’re a little younger than we were (back then) but have some of the similar features.”
As successful as Fletcher has been, Maestri expects even more success to come.
“It think it’s great but Ben’s smarter than I was,” Maestri said when asked how it feels to see a former player following in his footsteps. “It’s great to see Ben be so successful. I think he was voted as one of the top assistants in the nation a year ago and he has a really bright future. I think he’ll be a head coach soon and deservedly so.”
Fletcher isn’t the only Kennesaw State coach that Maestri has a connection to either. When Maestri served as an assistant coach at Texas A&M, Kennesaw State head coach Amir Abdur-Rahim was also an assistant there. Kennesaw State assistant coach William Small also served on Maestri’s staff at Troy in the mid 2000s.
“I’m happy for (Fletcher) and I’m happy for all of them,” Maestri said. “Their head coach was with me when I was at Texas A&M a few years ago and he’s a really good guy. William Small was with us (at Troy) and recruited some of those players when we won the Sun Belt Championship.”
Fletcher said an upset over Xavier would require his Owls to do what they’ve been doing all season long.
“I think the guys have to do what we’ve done, no moment has been too big for them,” he said. “They’ve done a great job of being connected to each other and being connected to the details. That’s been the key. If we’re going to pull off a game like this, our guys have to stay connected and make sure we pay attention to the scouting details and stick with our game plan.”
Kennesaw State faces Xavier in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday, March 17, at 11:40 p.m. in a game that will air on TruTV.