MANHATTAN, Kan. (AP) — There are still a handful of players left at Florida who remember the exact moment, during a timeout against rival Florida State more than two years ago, that Keyontae Johnson collapsed to the floor and time seemed to stand still.
Johnson was loaded onto a stretcher, taken to the hospital and remained there for more than a week.
It was the last time he stepped on the floor for the Gators, other than a senior-day sendoff when he went out for an opening tip. Considering doctors at Florida and numerous other schools would not clear him to play given the heart condition that led to his collapse, it could have been the last time he stepped on the floor, period.
Kansas State was willing to let him play, though. Its medical staff examined his history, put him through a battery of tests and ultimately decided, with close observation, the senior could resume his basketball career.
He’s set to the lead the No. 5 Wildcats against — you guessed it — Florida on Saturday night.
“It’s going to be amazing just playing against the team (where) I started college basketball,” Johnson said, “and just seeing my brothers back on the court, and just having to have that feeling of a family around me again.”
The exact nature of Johnson’s heart condition has never been disclosed, though he told The Associated Press prior to the season that he was on medication to help control it. But he said he hasn’t harbored animosity toward Florida or its medical staff, understanding full well the ramifications if something happened again.
“It was very tough,” Johnson acknowledged this week, “but they just had to do what was best for them medically and what they felt was safe for me. There is no ill will or hate for them. I’m still a Gator for life.”
Except on Saturday, when he’ll most decidedly be a Wildcat.
Johnson was voted SEC preseason player of the year in 2020, and the 6-foot-7 forward with the NBA-ready inside-outside game was staring at the possibility of becoming a first-round pick.
He never imagined becoming a glorified coach, which is what happened when he was released from the hospital and rejoined the Gators — a role he took on with a passion. Johnson even had a $5 million insurance policy that he could have collected had he never played another minute of college or professional basketball
He loved the game too much for that.
Once cleared by K-State, Johnson became perhaps the most important piece in the program’s major transformation. First-year coach Jerome Tang, who had helped build Baylor’s dynasty over the past two decades, brought together a collection of talented but largely underappreciated Division I and junior college transfers, along with a couple of prep prospects, to join a couple of holdovers from the end of Bruce Weber’s tenure.
In all, 14 players from last season were gone and a dozen newcomers arrived.
The Wildcats have been one of the incredible stories of the college basketball season, climbing into the top 5 in the AP poll for the first time in more than a decade. They scored 116 points in beating No. 6 Texas, edged No. 19 Baylor in overtime and produced a court-storming 83-82 overtime win over No. 2 Kansas — thanks to Johnson’s alley-oop dunk out of a timeout.
“We all watch (his) games when we’re on the road in hotels, and we just cheer him on, ’cause we know how much he cared about basketball,” Florida’s Colin Castleton said. “Everything he’s been through just shows you how strong a human he is, and just how much fight he has. He just pushed through it all, came with a great attitude every day.
“He’s really superhuman, to be honest, in everybody’s eyes,” Castleton added. “It’s going to be awesome to see him play. I know everybody in the locker room and everybody who knows him is really happy for him.”
That includes Mike White, his old coach at Florida, who is now in charge of SEC-rival Georgia.
“Wish he was wearing red and black,” White said. “He’s unbelievable. He is so good.”
Johnson is third in the Big 12 in scoring at 18.3 points per game, and third in rebounding at 7.5 per game. He’s shooting nearly 40% from the 3-point arc, nearly 75% from the foul line and is in the league’s top 10 in field-goal percentage.
Just as importantly, Johnson is providing leadership for a team assembled in a span of months.
“The silver lining, if there is any silver lining, is he had a long time where he just worked on his skill level,” White said. “He got in the gym and shot. He’s gotten even better and better. His confidence level is at an all-time high. Those guys are doing a terrific job with him. We root for him like crazy. My kids love watching them on TV.”
You can bet a lot of people will be watching this weekend.
“This guy’s overcome stuff that none of us can even understand,” Castleton said. “When he had chances to feel sorry for himself or pout or have a bad day, he didn’t let it happen. It wasn’t going to happen. He’s the epitome of character.”
AP Sports Writer Mark Long in Gainesville, Florida, contributed to this report.
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