Best Stories in College Basketball This Year

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistDecember 14, 2020

Best Stories in College Basketball This Year

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    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    Separating sports from everyday life is difficult in 2020. As much as we hope for college basketball to be an escape, many positive stories can slip beyond our attention.

    Given the amount of information we can access, it's no surprise. Even if only briefly, let's slow down.

    Two college basketball players have returned after cancer diagnoses. An oft-injured player is finally healthy, a new Division I team is performing well, and several other positive developments have emerged around the sport.

    This isn't meant to magically remove any concerns, worries or frustrations. But it's a chance to celebrate with someone else in a variety of ways, perhaps at a time we need to do so most.

Rutgers Holds 1st Preseason Ranking in 42 Years

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    Noah K. Murray/Associated Press

    During this calendar year alone, the Rutgers basketball program has ended a pair of 40-plus-year trends.

    Not since 1979 had the Scarlet Knights been ranked in the AP Top 25; they ended the drought in January. Before the 2020-21 campaign, Rutgers held a spot in the preseason poll for the first time since 1978. Steve Pikiell's squad entered at No. 24.

    And, most importantly, Rutgers is backing it up with a 4-0 record that features four double-digit wins.

    The schedule will be considerably more difficult in the immediate future, but Rutgers' climb to relevancya place it hadn't been in four decadesis progressing.

Dixie State's 3-0 Start in First D-1 Season

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    One of four new Division I teams, Dixie State has enjoyed a perfect start to its debut at the highest level.

    In the opener, the Trailblazers clipped North Dakota 74-73 behind a 19-point showing from Frank Staine. Jacob Nicolds scored 14 points in an 86-48 victory over lower-division St. Katherine, and Cameron Gooden netted 23 to help beat Denver 73-70.

    Expectations for Dixie State are relatively low, which is totally understandable. And when the Trailblazers travel to Gonzaga in late December, it might be a rude introduction to D-I play.

    But so far, so good. Every win is valuable as a new team.

Joshua Langford Finally Returns for MSU

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    Al Goldis/Associated Press

    During his first two seasons at Michigan State, Joshua Langford started in 62 of his 70 appearances. He played a key role for the Spartans as they won the Big Ten regular-season title in 2017-18 and averaged 15.0 points in his 13 appearances as a junior.

    But then, a foot injury derailed him.

    To close the 2018-19 season, Langford watched from the sideline as MSU reached the Final Four. He missed the entire 2019-20 campaign after undergoing foot surgery.

    This year, though, he's back in the starting lineup. Langford has provided 6.8 points and 2.5 assists per game for the Spartans, who are 5-0 and have climbed to No. 4 nationally.

South Alabama's Mike Flowers' Emotional Week

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    Michael Flowers
    Michael FlowersGetty Images (Bobby McDuffie)

    In mid-October, the NCAA reversed an initial decision and deemed Michael Flowers eligible for the 2020-21 season. He'd transferred to South Alabama from Western Michigan in May.

    Right before the season opener, Flowers' father died of cancer, per Creg Stephenson of AL.com. His mother had died of pancreatic cancer two years earlier.

    One day after his father's death, Flowers hit a game-winner.

    With the Jaguars trailing 66-65 in the last 10 seconds, Flowers dribbled down the left sideline, stepped back and buried a three-pointer. It capped a 20-point debut for the senior.

    "It's extremely gratifying," Flowers said of the moment, according to Stephenson. "I've been through a lot these last couple of months, but so has everybody else in the world. There's a lot going on. I'm just proud of myself and my teammates for being resilient and not giving up, getting the win."

Jason Preston's Rise at Ohio

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    Holly Hart/Associated Press

    While helping Ohio nearly upset Illinois, Jason Preston racked up 31 points, eight assists and six rebounds. It was a strong performance from a returning All-MAC guard.

    However, his background story made the ESPN broadcast, too.

    Five years earlier, Preston's mother died of lung cancer. He lived in an apartment with his mom's best friend's son and averaged just two points per game in high school. After playing in an AAU tournament, he attended a prep school and started on the C-team. He played his way through the B-team and onto the A-team.

    But then he went back to the C-team and promptly put up a triple-double. Preston made a highlight tape, posted it on social media and landed offers from Ohio and Longwood.

    Three years later, he's a legitimate NBA prospect. Preston's is an almost-unbelievable, thoroughly incredible story.

Patrick McCaffrey's Return from Thyroid Cancer

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    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    As a 14-year-old, Patrick McCaffery was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Last year, he played in two games before missing the rest of the season with "residual health issues" related to the diagnosis.

    McCaffery has returned to the floor in 2020-21, playing alongside his brother, Connor, and for his father, Fran.

    Luka Garza is the team's undisputed star. Still, Patrick garnered some attention in his 16-point season debut. Through five games, he's averaged 8.8 points, 4.2 rebounds and 1.7 assists while logging 17.5 minutes per contest off the bench.

    McCaffery will be a valuable piece of an Iowa team expected to contend for Big Ten and national titles.

Tiana Mangakahia's Return from Breast Cancer

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    In her first season at Syracuse, Tiana Mangakahia earned first-team All-ACC honors while averaging 17.5 points and 9.8 assists. She followed that up with an honorable-mention AP All-American selection, notching 16.9 points and 8.4 assists per game.

    Last summer, though, Mangakahia was diagnosed with breast cancer. She underwent chemotherapy and a double mastectomy, which sidelined her for the 2019-20 season.

    Between her 2019 NCAA tournament appearance and the 2020-21 opener, 615 days passed. She returned to the court with 16 points, seven rebounds, four steals and three assists to guide Syracuse past Stony Brook 50-39.

    "I just felt super happy to be on the court," she said afterward.

    While helping the Orange build a 4-0 record, Mangakahia is averaging 13.0 points, 6.5 assists and 2.8 steals.