Jason Preston, for all his traits, is nothing like D.J. Cooper.
Cooper, a former Bobcat standout, scribbled his name across the Ohio record book and into OU lore with a four-year career that had more raw numbers, bravado and NCAA Tournament wins than any other player in modern history.
Preston, the ‘Cats’ current buzz-worthy point guard, lacks some of the edge (or swagger if you prefer) that Cooper brought in spades. But he’s not short on anything in the way of game.
Despite differences in personality, style and background, Preston can join Cooper as an Ohio legend if he can help the Bobcats spring another upset in the NCAA Tournament when OU (16-7) faces Virginia (18-6) in a West Regional first-round game on Saturday at Assembly Hall in Bloomington, Ind.
Tipoff for the 13th-seeded Bobcats and No. 4-seeded Cavaliers is set for 7:15 p.m. The game will be broadcast live on truTV. The winner will face either No. 5 Creighton or No. 12 UC Santa Barbara in the second round.
The game will cap a dizzying five-year run for Preston, who has become one of the hot players in the tournament after barely playing in high school. It’s story both Preston and head coach Jeff Boals have talked about several times this week.
“It’s very humbling to even be here today,” Preston said. “Everything that’s happened is something I dreamt about, I envisioned, I really wanted to make happen. I’m just happy I was given the opportunities for that. I’m really blessed.”
Preston’s story is one that deserves to be heard far and wide, Boals said.
“The world deserves to know about his story. If you don’t know about it, google it because it’s a movie,” Boals said. “I’m excited for the world to see it because it’s deserved, it’s earned. It’s just an American story.”
Preston is the driving force for Ohio’s tournament run, and Mid-American Conference tournament title that got the Bobcats to Indianapolis. If Ohio is to spring another NCAA upset, Preston will have to play a starring role.
The junior averaged 16.6 points, 6.8 rebound and 7.2 assists per game this season, while shooting 43.0 percent overall and 40.8 percent from 3-point range. The numbers only illustrate part of his impact.
Ohio was the best passing team in the MAC this season, the ‘Cats became one of the better offensive teams in the country, and Preston was acknowledged as a big reason why. The most astounding aspect of Preston’s season may be what happened in postseason balloting in the MAC.
Preston was named as a first-team all-league selection, in voting by the league’s coaches, despite appearing in just nine league games – less than half the number scheduled. Preston, the MAC Tournament MVP, lost a couple of weeks with a hamstring injury, and Ohio lost four weeks due to a pair of COVID pauses.
None of it was enough to blunt Preston’s perceived impact on the MAC or the Bobcats.
And according to Boals, Preston is just now rounding back into his early season form. Boals said Preston posted absurd numbers in preseason camp – 60 percent shooting with a mark north of 50 percent from 3 – and is approaching that level once again.
In Ohio’s third game of the season, Preston posted 31 points, six rebounds and eight assists – with no turnovers – in Ohio’s near-upset at Illinois. The Illini are a No. 1 seed in the Midwest Region for the NCAA Tournament.
Boals said that showcase, which put Preston in the national spotlight, was just the expected progression from his preseason.
“He was at another level,” Boals said.
“The game of basketball is consistency and continuity, and rhythm and feel,” Boals continued. “He’s back to that spot.”
Before the season, Preston’s name was bandied about as a probable second-round NBA draft pick. The in-and-out nature of his season has temporarily dampened that kind of talk. The NCAA Tournament presents Preston with another chance to generate views, clicks and prospects for a potential pro career.
It’s a big weekend for Preston.
“I’ve gotten a lot of recognition…I just want to say I wish some of my teammates would get some of the same love as well,” Preston said. “It’s just really fun to play right now.
I’m really just thinking about winning, no matter who we’re playing against. We’re in the biggest tournament there is right now, I just want to win basketball games.”
How Preston plays will impact Ohio’s chances. It will color the decision about whether to stay, or go, after the season ends. There will be a kind of pressure in this matchup that he hasn’t had to deal with this season.
Boals isn’t worried.
“He’s such a laid-back kid that nothing really phases him. I think that helps him in these scenarios,” Boals said.
In three seasons, Preston has become a 1,000-point scorer and ranks fifth in program history with 471 assists. With 18 points and five assists against Virginia, Preston will pass Jaaron Simmons (1,034 points, 475 assists) for 36th in program history in scoring and fourth in career assists.
But if the Bobcats can’t spring the upset, will Preston return to Ohio for his senior season? Boals is a big believer in his potential as a pro, and began the season with a goal of placing Preston “in the mix” of leaving as a draft pick.
“I wanted him to have a great year for a lot of reasons,” the coach said. “One, if he had a great year, we were going to have a great year.”
The season didn’t turn out exactly as planned. But the Bobcats are where they want to be, and Preston is leading the charge. Have the star player and the coach discussed Preston going pro?
“A little bit, but my big thing was hey, stay two feet in. Nothing can happen now. If something does happen, it’ll be because of how you played. Nothing more,” Boals said.
“As easily as you get the attention…it can go away quicker when you have a bad game. He’s done a great job of having two feet in,” he continued. “It’s not a foregone conclusion he’s gone. If he plays well, and we make a run, then he’ll have a decision to make.”
It’s a decision Preston and the Bobcats want to put off for as long as possible. For now, the Bobcats feel great about their chances. There will be time to figure out the next step. For now, Preston has a chance to join Cooper as the kind of transformative player that the fan base can rally around.
March Magic is in Ohio’s past. It can also be part of the present and the future.
“You get a guy like D.J. Cooper who gets hot?“ Boals shrugged. “Who knows right?
“It’s a 40-minute game, it’s the NCAA Tournament. Other teams can get tight when the games get close and the crowd gets into it. We have a special player as well. Hopefully we can do the same type of magic.”