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Keyontae Johnson will face Florida Gators basketball with Kansas State

It looks weird in purple.

That might be the first thing that comes to mind for Florida fans Saturday night. In a rare matchup, the Gators will play Kansas State.

The game is part of the Big 12/SEC Challenge, a made-for-TV promotion in which two conferences go head-to-head over a mid-season Saturday.

By luck or fate or some mystical power, this chance meeting has evolved into the strangest meeting of all time.

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The Wildcats will be led by Keyontae Johnson. The last time most Florida fans saw Johnson, he was ceremonially wearing No. 11 for the Gators and kissing the field at the O’Connell Center.

It was a bittersweet end to Senior Day for Johnson’s basketball career. Or so most of us thought.

On the off chance that you don’t know why, Johnson was basically the first version of Damar Hamlin. Two years before the Buffalo safety nearly died on “Monday Night Football,” Johnson collapsed on a Saturday afternoon at FSU.

What exactly went wrong in his heart is still confidential. But it was dangerous enough to turn one of college basketball’s most promising players into a mere courtside observer.

So what is a cardiac case like Johnson doing in a place like Manhattan, Kansas?

He’s tearing it up, thanks.

Keyontae Johnson, college basketball Kansas State surprise

Johnson is part of the biggest upset story of the college basketball season. K-State is traditionally an afterthought of Kansas basketball, but the Wildcats are 17-3 and ranked in the top five for the first time in 11 years.

The surprise within the surprise is Johnson. He is leading the team in scoring (18.3 avg) and rebounding (7.5 avg).

In the latest Hollywood twist, Johnson’s alley-oop dunk earned an 83-82 victory over Kansas last week.

“I call it a rebirth, a second chance,” Johnsons said after the game. “(God) gave me a second chance. I thank him for the opportunity to wake up every morning.”

If you’re a Florida fan, you can’t help but wonder why God gave them a second chance, but the Gators didn’t. It’s not like Todd Golden can’t use a 6-foot-6 bruiser with NBA prowess.

Don’t torture yourself. As difficult as it is to watch Johnson play for Kansas State, he tries to understand why he is no longer a Gator.

Authorizing him to play again has never been a viable option in Gainesville. For one thing, Florida doctors wouldn’t do that. Even if they had, the emotional responsibility would have been prohibitive.

Johnson was the primary victim in this near-death experience. But she traumatized the entire school, especially those closest to Johnson.

It didn’t matter how tiny the chances of another heart malfunction might be. Had Johnson collapsed again, UF would have come out as a program that sacrificed a young man’s life in pursuit of a sports trophy.

Beyond that, coaches and administrators couldn’t have lived with themselves. Such was their caution that they would not let Johnson do anything but don a uniform one last time on Senior Day and walk the floor for the opening tip.

Kentucky coach John Calipari offered to let Johnson take the tip and dribble for a final field goal. The UF overruled it, likely fearing Johnson would take off and execute a 360-degree dunk.

He had been chained on the sidelines for 16 months. In all of this, there was no pout or “Why me?” He became “Coach Key”, encouraging and mentoring teammates during practice and games.

An army of heart specialists examined him along the way. Some have given Johnson the green light to resume play. It just wasn’t going to happen in Gainesville.

Keyontae Johnson on Florida: ‘I’m Still a Lifelong Alligator’

“It was very difficult,” Johnson said, “but they just had to do what was best for them medically and what they felt was safe for me. There is no hard feelings or hatred for them. I’m still a lifelong Alligator.

Johnson could have collected a $5 million insurance policy if he never played again. Johnson loved the thought of playing basketball much more than the thought of being rich.

Kansas State threw him a hoops lifeline, and not just because he was desperate for capable basketball bodies. The Wildcats don’t want to endanger Johnson any less than UF did. They just had enough medical evidence to feel comfortable with the risks.

All of which led up to the strange, awkward, curious and exciting meeting on Saturday night.

“It’s going to be great to play against the team I started playing college basketball with,” Johnson said, “and see my brothers get back on the court.”

It will be the last chapter in a great comeback story. We should all feel nothing but joy at Johnson’s second chance, no matter what color of uniform he wears.

David Whitley is a sports columnist for The Gainesville Sun. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @DavidEWhitley

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