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Madness ensues: Ohio star's remarkable journey continues after NCAA upset

Pete Thamel
·5-min read

To understand just how abrupt the ascent of Ohio star Jason Preston has been, consider the message he wrote on LinkedIn last year.

“I am looking to continue to stay with the sport of basketball and look into…becoming a future scout,” he wrote. He added: “Do not hesitate to connect with me, as I would love to grow with you!”

Well, those potential connections have grown exponentially in the past 24 hours. And the bandwagon of folks waiting to see where Ohio’s star point guard can go is filling up at a rapid rate.

How it started. How it’s going. We see that a lot on social media these days. And the dichotomy of those two answers make Preston one of the most compelling stories in this NCAA tournament.

How it started: You can pick a storyline. Is it that he loved basketball so much that he blogged for free, contributing to the FanSided site Piston Powered? Is it that he briefly enrolled at UCF to become a sportswriter? Or is it that he bet on himself by going to prep school after warming the bench in high school and got a scholarship offer to Ohio University off highlights posted on Twitter?

How’s it going: You could see Preston's preternatural poise in No. 13 Ohio’s 62-58 win over No. 4 Virginia on Saturday night. Preston, a 6-foot-4 guard, scored 11 points, grabbed 13 rebounds and dished out eight assists, bolstering his status as a precocious NBA prospect. The upset of Virginia could be remembered as the night Preston shifted from a player who intrigued NBA teams to a player destined to play in the league.

“He cemented his standing that he’s a legit NBA prospect,” an NBA scout told Yahoo late Saturday. “If he comes out or doesn’t, he’s put the NBA world on notice that he’s someone we need to take notice of.”

Ohio's Jason Preston (R) reacts with a teammate during his team's win over Virginia on March 20. (Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
Ohio's Jason Preston (R) reacts with a teammate during his team's win over Virginia on March 20. (Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

Well, the aspiring sportswriter has gone from author to subject, a content creator to a content inspiration. The aspiring NBA scout has flipped from aspiring evaluator to compelling prospect. It’s hard to imagine a player in the NCAA tournament who has come further.

And along the way, he has Ohio University poised to reach the school’s fourth-ever NCAA tournament Sweet 16. And here’s why things can keep going: Coach Jeff Boals’ team showed unusual roster depth and poise. After upsetting the defending national champions, Ohio has gone from the No. 5 seed in the MAC tournament to a team that can keep on advancing in the NCAA tournament.

Ohio takes on No. 5 Creighton on Monday, and it wouldn’t be considered that big an upset if the Bobcats mimicked the D.J. Cooper-led run of 2012 and reached the Sweet 16.

“We have a lot of great pieces,” Boals said, noting the Bobcats have five players who average double-digit scoring. “Different guys step up on different nights.”

On Saturday, it was 6-foot-8 forward Ben Vander Plas who led the Bobcats with 17 points and managed to namecheck nearly the whole roster in his postgame Zoom. Sophomore forward Ben Roderick added 15 points, including the layup and 3-pointer that gave Ohio critical cushion to go up seven points with 1:07 left.

The Bobcats exuded a collective calm, as they finished the night 13 of 14 from the free-throw line and cashed in on 5 of 6 from the floor to end the game against Virginia’s meat-grinder defense. Ohio also took the unofficial NCAA tournament lead in bench-towel waving and overall enthusiasm. “You can tell by watching them play,” Boals said, “they love each other.”

While the array of personnel is there for a potential upset, the Bobcat protagonist is clear. Preston’s shock of red hair bounced around on Saturday night like a bobbing red beacon of where the viewer should cast their eyes. With UVA’s rugged defense keyed on him, perhaps the most impressive part of Preston’s night is that he took just seven shots. He happily played pick-and-roll distributor, patient enabler and conscientious deflector of attention.

Still, his value was undeniable. “I told him this is where stars are born, legacies are made,” Boals said. He added: “He's the heart and soul of our team. The world saw today who he is and what he's able to do. Just really proud of him.”

This all wasn’t so obvious when Preston was a 6-foot high school bench warmer who weighed just 140 pounds. He was an introvert reeling from the death of his mother. He was so smitten with basketball that he wrote about it for free, devoured YouTube clips of LeBron and Chris Paul and, eventually, ditched journalism school after summer sessions to chase his dream. “It’s just special to see because of his story, his journey,” said Kobe Florial, Preston’s best friend growing up, in an interview late Saturday.

After going to Believe Prep Academy in Tennessee, the journey wasn’t linear for Preston. He earned a scholarship offer from Maryland Eastern Shore, a MEAC school in the lowest rungs of Division I. When that staff got fired, he drew interest from Longwood.

Only after Preston’s prep-school Twitter highlights ricocheted around the internet did the former staff at Ohio University take notice.

“He was all set to go to Longwood,” said Kevin Jackson, the head coach and director Believe Prep Academy. “If the [former] coach at Longwood reads this story, he’s going to be pissed. He was pissed when we told him Jason was going to visit Ohio, but we have to do the best thing for our players.”

After being cast to the bench, overlooked and then under-recruited, Preston finally found a home when he visited Ohio. All along, he’s carried with him inspiration and motivation from above, as his mother, Judith, passed from lung cancer before his junior year of high school. “I hope she’s proud,” he said in the postgame television interview. “I hope she’s proud.”

Jason Preston has come a long way from where things started. And once again on Monday, America can again be captivated by just how far he and Ohio can go.

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