Surrounded by his (basketball) family, Jason Preston’s first thoughts following dynamic and championship-winning run through the Mid-American Conference Tournament were of the most important member of his circle who wasn’t there.
Preston overwhelmed Buffalo, wowed a national TV audience, and powered Ohio to an 84-69 win in the 2021 MAC Tournament championship game on Saturday night at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse. He was rightfully handed the tournament’s MVP award after averaging 22.7 points, 5.0 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 2.7 steals per game – on eye-popping 66.7 percent shooting – as the Bobcats sauntered through the three-day gauntlet virtually untouched.
OU is heading back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012, Preston is acknowledged as a big reason why, and he’ll be one of the darlings of the opening weekend of the ‘Big Dance’ in Indianapolis.
Still, there were moments during and after the on-court celebration when Preston felt the pangs of regret, of loss. It was the highlight of his basketball career, to date anyway, but slightly marred by who didn’t get to see it in person.
There was joy – pure, unabated joy – to be sure. And the remorse of not being able to share it with the person who mattered the most.
Preston’s mother, Judith, died from cancer while he was a junior in high school. She’s the one who got him hooked on basketball, who instilled a love and appreciation for all things hoops.
As a high schooler, Preston scored 52 points. Not in a game, or a season, but in his career. He started just one game while in school in Orlando; It was on Senior Night. He wasn’t recruited to play college basketball until after a stint at a prep school, and picked Ohio after the Bobcats were one of two schools to offer him.
Now he’s a First Team All-MAC section, a tournament MVP, and banner-carrier for every overlooked, under-recruited player atthe mid-major level. Why couldn’t the reason he’s here in the first place be there to enjoy it with him?
“The first thing I thought about was my mom,” Preston said Saturday. “She’s a big part of why I’m doing this, a big part of why I got into basketball. She’s been on my mind heavy this whole year honestly.”
Preston’s basketball journey since his mother’s death has taken him from Orlando, to Athens, Tenn. and then to Athens, Ohio. And truth be told she’s never been far from his thoughts.
A month into his first season with Ohio, as a skinny 6-3 pass-first point guard with a mop of curly red hair, Preston admitted she was, and is, the reason for everything. His mantra ‘Believe in you’ is borne from those final weeks with his mother, who also instilled in him the traits that every player and coach who’s met him continue to use to describe him. Appreciative. Thankful. Driven. Unselfish. Humble.
“Second, just thankful for putting me in this position to be where we are right now,” Preston continued on Saturday. “Third, just thankful for everybody. The coaching staff, teammates, trainers, media, everyone. Just thankful.”
Ben Vander Plas — Preston’s teammate, roommate and on-court facilitator during Ohio’s dominating tournament run – has a father who was a Division I player and then coach, and a sister who also played college basketball. Both also made the NCAA Tournament.
“My dad and my sister both played in the NCAA Tournament,” Vander Plas said. “For the both of them, it’s their greatest basketball memory. To be able to do it with this team, I’m just so excited.”
In some ways, Vander Plas is the opposite of Preston. Preston hails from sunny Florida, and Vander Plas comes from the cold north of Wisconsin. Where Preston is smooth, Vander Plas is a bit more methodical. Where Preston was unnoticed in high school, Vander Plas was sought after following a prep career where he shined while playing for his father, Dean. Where Preston has basically been on his own for the last six years, Vander Plas has always been supported by his basketball-loving family.
But both can pass the pass. Both shouldered the load the past two seasons as Ohio head coach Jeff Boals needed on-the-floor leaders. Both delivered big shots and big plays as the Bobcats completed their tournament run.
And both know exactly how far they’ve come in the past two years. In 2017-18, Ohio finished 14-17 as Vander Plas took a redshirt following a leg injury. The following summer, Vander Plas was the host for the recruit no one knew much about – Preston.
Both played through another injury-marred Ohio season in 2018-19, and the Bobcats finished with another 14-17 record. The school executed a coaching change, and gone was the head coach (Saul Phillips) and the staff that had recruited both.
Jeff Boals, an OU alum, former player and tournament championship himself, was brought in. He quickly earned the trust and respect of the pair, who had bonded.
Now, 24 months later, Preston and Vander Plas were sitting in front of screen giddy at the prospects of being in the NCAA Tournament.
“Last night, we were talking about Jay’s visit to OU, I was his host,” Vander Plas said. “I remember going to dinner with him, hanging out with him. To see us, where we are now, it’s just a crazy moment.
“I’m just trying to soak it all in.”
Every team, every season – by the end – has been molded into its own distinct creation. For example, in 2010 Ohio won the MAC Tournament with a team that was willing put aside everything that happened during a tumultuous regular season to go for broke in its own tournament run. That team was defiant.
In 2012, a team laden with former defending champions, leaned heavily into perceived disrespect and vowed to prove everyone wrong. That group was determined, less head-strong that their 2010 counterparts, and decided more connected.
This year – it sounds hokey I know – I’ll think of love when it comes to the Bobcats’ championship run.
The love of a son for a mother who wasn’t able to see the kind of person he had become and embody all she had hoped he could be. The love of a teammate for another with whom he had little in common besides the game they both live for.
The love a squad had for each other, to hunker down during a pandemic and adhere to protocol to even make the season – and that moment on Saturday – possible.
The love the players had for the game they all share, and the love to play it for each other.
“When you recruit high-character guys, who love each other, who play at a school that they love and play the game that they love, special things happen,” Boals said on Saturday’s postgame zoom call that did little to convey the emotion he must have been feeling.
“This group is going to have a memory of a lifetime now.”
After the game was won, and the buzzer sounded, Preston and Vander Plas embraced near center court under the gargantuan scoreboard in Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse. It was relief, it was joy, it was love.
It was a moment captured in an image — seen at the top of this post — by Dean Vander Plas. In a social media post with the image, he started by saying “My boys!!!!”
It was a moment that can almost make you forget about all the issues that muddy the waters around college athletics.
Jason Preston lost his mother years ago. It’s heartbreaking, but it’s also part of who he is and maybe the most defining reason for who he is.
But Preston isn’t alone. He’s got a brother now.