March Madness is built for unlikely stories, and Jason Preston’s is as inspiring as they get.
“His life,” Ohio University coach Jeff Boals said, “is a movie.”
The Bobcats, the 13th seed in the West Region, upset No. 4 seed Virginia in its first-round NCAA Tournament game in Bloomington, Indiana, on Saturday. Preston, a junior point guard, is the biggest reason for that.
“He’s going to be really important in this tournament and I really feel he’s going to be the best player on the floor,” said Boals, an OU alum and longtime assistant at Ohio State under Thad Matta.
That Preston is on any college court is a minor miracle. To say he was unrecruited out of Boone High School in Orlando, Florida, is an understatement. He hadn’t hit his growth spurt and barely played as a senior.
“He’s 6 feet tall, 140 pounds and scored 52 points his whole senior year,” Boals said.
Size was hardly Preston’s only obstacle. His father wasn’t part of his life, and his mother, Judith Sewell, died of lung cancer when Preston was 15.
Preston said the strong support system of family and friends helped him through that time. His aunt in Jamaica became his legal guardian, and Preston lived in an apartment with his mom’s best friend’s sons, Russell Whittaker and Brian-Marc Whittaker, and cousin Justin Morgan.
Still, a teenager living without parents faces tough odds. But Preston was determined to buck them.
“It’s always your response to things in life that really matters,” Preston said. “You can let bad things tear you down and you can have a negative outlook, but that’s not going to help you at all. So keep pushing, keep fighting and know that ultimately everything happens for a reason, and it’s all part of God’s plan. I know she’s in a better place, so that can be a little bit comforting.”
After high school, Preston enrolled at the University of Central Florida as a regular student. Basketball was simply recreation. Then one day in July, a friend needed a fifth player for an AAU tournament and asked Preston to be that fifth.
It would change his life. Preston dazzled at the tournament.
“It was a pretty top-level competition,” he said. “To play like that against them gave me a lot of confidence.”
Preston’s play caught the eye of a prep school coach. He encouraged him to go that route, and Preston enrolled at Believe Sports Academy in Athens, Tennessee.
Believe sponsored teams at several levels, and Preston didn’t even play on its top team. But he created a highlight video and posted it online in hopes college coaches would see it. The video is less than two minutes, but Preston’s creativity, particularly his passing, are impressive.
Only two schools did offer a scholarship — Longwood and Ohio University, then coached by Saul Phillips. Boals was head coach at Stony Brook and noticed Preston as a freshman when he’d watch his alma mater’s games.
“I’m like, dang, that kid is pretty good,” Boals said.
When Boals was hired at OU and saw him at workouts, Preston conjured memories of some of the great players Boals helped coach at Ohio State.
“He had the vision and the passing ability of D’Angelo Russell and Evan Turner,” he said. “He can see things happening before they happen. Some of his turnovers would be because his teammates should have been in a spot but weren’t, and he threw it there. So I knew he was an elite passer.”
But Boals told Preston, who weighed only 160 pounds, had to get stronger. Preston is still thin, but he’s up to 190 while growing to 6-4.
Preston blossomed last year. He had 13 assists in the opener against St. Bonaventure. When Iona game-planned two games later to take away Preston’s passing, he scored 27 points — and for good measure grabbed 14 rebounds.
But his true breakout game came this year in a nationally televised game at Illinois. The Bobcats nearly pulled off the upset against the Illini, now a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Preston had a career-high 31 points on 13-of-23 shooting, eight assists and six rebounds without committing a turnover.
In Ohio’s three Mid-American Conference tournament games, Preston scored 68 points to lead the Bobcats to the title. For the season, he is averaging 17.8 points. His 7.2 assists per game rank sixth in the country.
As the NCAA Tournament begins, the national spotlight is now falling on Preston.
“It’s very humbling to even be here today,” he said. “Everything that’s happened is something I dreamt about and envisioned. I’m just really happy God has given me opportunities for that. I’m really blessed.”
Preston said his only regret about the recent attention is that he wishes that more would be showered on his teammates. He rattled off the names of several Ohio players he deemed worthy of it.
That doesn’t surprise Boals.
“He’s phenomenal (off the court), like the most appreciative kid I’ve ever been around,” he said. “His growth not only on the court, but off the court in the two years that I’ve been around them. … He deserves every honor.”