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Column: Two years after collapsing mid-game, Keyontae Johnson’s comeback is the best story in college basketball

Two years after collapsing on the court, Johnson is tormenting opposing teams like he never left.

NCAA Basketball: Kentucky at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Amid a chaotic first month of college basketball this season, there’s been one story that’s somehow flown under the radar completely that deserves a bit more press. Louisville’s futility, Texas’ resurgence, Bill Self’s suspension, and North Carolina’s rapid fall from grace have all been major storylines during a hectic first few weeks of the season. There’s been little stability in the overall balance of power in college basketball, and the top-10 teams in the AP Poll is shuffling weekly.

But perhaps the best story of this college basketball season has somehow fallen by the wayside.

Exactly two years ago on Dec. 12, 2020, pre-season SEC Player of the Year Keyontae Johnson had just completed an alley-oop dunk to give Florida an 11-3 lead over No. 20 Florida State 3:37 into the game. On his way back up the court, Johnson collapsed and fell face-first into the hardwood as he went into cardiac arrest. Play was halted and Johnson was stretchered off the court and quickly taken to a Tallahassee hospital. Florida State offered to call off the game, but the Gators, tears in their eyes, wanted to see it through.

They were outscored 42-24 the rest of the first half and eventually lost the game 83-71 — although the importance of the game paled in comparison to the larger, more important issue at hand.

At the hospital, Johnson was placed into a medically-induced coma, where he stayed for one week. With increased brain activity, he was eventually lifted from the coma and put out a video thanking everyone for their prayers and well wishes. On Dec. 20, 2020, Johnson was diagnosed with myocarditis — a heart condition that involves inflammation and weakening of the heart muscle. Johnson was ill with COVID-19 earlier that year, and the heart condition is often linked to the virus, but it’s impossible to know if Johnson had myocarditis before he contracted COVID-19 or not.

Regardless, Johnson did not play for the remaining 20 games of the season, nor did he play at all during the 2021-2022 season. He continued to visit with doctors and cardiologists to learn more about his health and if he could ever play basketball again. For those two seasons, the Florida men’s basketball program left one of their 13 scholarships open for Johnson while he recovered. He quickly became “Coach Key” on the bench, and was an integral part of the program despite not being able to compete.

This past May, after the conclusion of the 2021-2022 season, Johnson entered his name into the NCAA Transfer Portal in hopes of playing one more season once he was medically cleared to play. Several programs pursued Johnson despite the haziness of his medical status, including Memphis, Nebraska, and Kansas State. In August, Johnson was cleared to return and chose to transfer to Kansas State and play under new head coach Jerome Tang.

The 56 year-old Tang, who spent 19 seasons as an assistant at Baylor from 2003-2022, made Kansas State his first career head coaching job in March. Johnson was one of the first players he recruited to his program.

“Today is great day to be a Wildcat! We are just so excited to welcome Keyontae and his family to K-State,” said Tang. “He is a gifted player and a winner who brings significant experience to our team after playing in one of the toughest leagues in the country while at Florida. Beyond that, we think Keyontae is just a perfect fit with the guys we already have in the program. We can’t wait to get him to Manhattan and introduce him to Wildcat Nation!”

After the resignation of longtime head coach Bruce Weber, Kansas State’s leading scorer from a year ago — Nijel Pack — transferred to the University of Miami. Replacing Pack’s 17.4 PPG and elite three-point shooting was always going to be a struggle, but new coaches — first-time coaches especially — aren’t expected to do much in year one. With so many unknowns, Kansas State was picked to finish last in the Big 12 this season.

Instead, the Wildcats have started the season 9-1 and have received votes in the AP Poll in back-to-back weeks now. Even more impressive is that Johnson, who was unable to play for two seasons, is leading the charge. The 23-year old, 6-foot-6 forward is averaging a career-high 17.2 points per game this season, and has been the Wildcats’ leading scorer in five of their 10 games. He’s also averaging a team-high 6.7 rebounds per game, and is shooting 48% from three-point range. On top of that, he’s playing 32 minutes per game — second on the team, and the highest mark of his career.

After Kansas State’s first win of the season, a 93-59 blowout of Texas Rio-Grande Valley on Nov. 7, Tang said he was happiest for the group of players he was able to assemble for this season’s team, many of whom took “tough roads” to get there. But he was especially emotional for Johnson, who waited two long years to have a second opportunity.

“I told the guys, whether you played well or didn’t play well, played a lot or didn’t play, nobody should be unhappy tonight because Keyontae Johnson played a basketball game — a real game, an NCAA basketball game — for the first time in two years,” Tang told the Topeka Capital-Journal after the game. “There are several guys on the team that had some tough roads to get here, and this is a second opportunity for them, so we just have to be really excited about that.

Johnson’s comeback has helped propel Tang’s first Kansas State team from expected doormat to a sudden NCAA Tournament contender. Granted, the Wildcats haven’t ran a gauntlet of tough games thus far, but they have notched wins over LSU, Wichita State, and Nevada. Time will tell if K-State is legit with Big 12 play starting at the end of the month, but for now “Coach Key” and his Wildcats are racking up non-conference wins left and right, are 9-1, and sit just on the outskirts of the AP Top-25.

For Johnson specifically, the fifth-year senior is currently setting several career-highs in several stat categories, and is in the mix for Big 12 Player of the Year after missing two seasons of basketball activities. His 17.2 points per game currently ranks third in the Big 12, his 6.7 rebounds is seventh, his 81.4% free throw mark is tenth, and his 48% three-point percentage is sixth in the Big 12.

It’s possible that, once Big 12 play starts, Kansas State will fall back to earth and the Wildcats won’t get much media attention for the final few months of the season. But if Johnson’s Wildcats don’t make the NCAA Tournament, or if they do in fact finish in last place in the Big 12, it won’t be for a lack of trying on his part.

I don’t think anyone except Keyontae himself could have expected him to return from such a long break from physical activity and resume being such a productive college basketball player at the highest level. Regardless of where his season goes from here, it seemed important to take a minute today — on the two year anniversary of the day Johnson almost lost his life — to recognize his amazing journey and perseverance.