After finishing up his freshman year with a sportswriter title and a NCAA Tournament appearance under his belt, McCollum entered his sophomore season determined to lead the Mountain Hawks back to the Tournament. Individually, he excelled, averaging 21 points and nearly eight rebounds per game despite standing only 6-3, something he attributes to his leaping ability and desire to have the ball in his hands. However, Lehigh lost in the Patriot League semi-finals on a controversial call and didn’t make the NCAAs. McCollum described that feeling as “devastating”, and it inspired him to work even harder in the offseason.
During that summer after his sophomore year, McCollum was in the gym all the time. He was working with one goal in mind: winning the conference tournament. He worked on getting stronger, building his stamina and becoming more efficient. He was also invited to tryout for the United States World University Games team, where for two weeks he would go against some of the best American talent in college basketball.
McCollum didn’t make the team, but was able to test himself and see where he stood amongst the best.
“If you want to be the best, you have to take away from the best and learn from them,” he says.
Coming back to campus this year more determined than ever, McCollum and the Mountain Hawks went 23-7 with an 11-3 conference record. The Mountain Hawks made it to the championship to face No. 1-seeded Bucknell, on Bucknell’s home court, for the chance to go to the NCAAs.
“We knew the game would be tough and it would be a hostile environment for us, but winning that championship meant a lot to us, particularly our seniors,” McCollum says. “The seniors worked so hard for this program and we wanted to win this for them and represent the Patriot League in the NCAA Tournament.”
Well… McCollum certainly did his part. In the championship game, he scored 29 points to go along with five assists and three steals to will his team into the tournament, where they would be a No. 15 seed matched up against Duke. This was a typical David vs. Goliath NCAA story: Duke with their NBA talent, national championships and legendary coach; Lehigh with their undersized players, zero NCAA wins, and coach known more for his doctorate degree than his basketball pedigree. Nobody gave Lehigh much of a chance. But this was the matchup Lehigh wanted.
“Duke wasn’t playing as well toward the end of the season as they had been and we were playing our best basketball,” says Gabe Knutson, Lehigh’s starting forward. “Everything was really coming together for us as a team so we really thought we had a chance to beat them based on that.”
The game was a nail-biter throughout, and whenever Duke looked like they would survive the scare, McCollum stepped up, showing the killer instinct that first made him so attractive to Reed. Whether it was nailing a big three or finding a cutting Knutson for a dunk, McCollum was simply the best player on the floor, a fact Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski later acknowledged. McCollum finished with 30 points, six assists and six rebounds. Ultimately, the man who was overlooked by the Blue Devils helped end their season.
“It was a great moment for our team, for Lehigh, for everybody involved with the program,” McCollum says, still clearly trying to make sense of everything that happened. “And it was an honor for Coach K to recognize that I performed at a high level but also most importantly that we as a team performed at a high level. He’s one of the best ever so hearing his comments definitely mean a lot to me.”
Their 75-70 victory over Duke set off pandemonium in Bethlehem. Students celebrated by burning Duke jerseys and chanting “We Beat Duke” across campus. Even though Lehigh’s season ended in their next game against Xavier, their accomplishments will go down in history.
With such a successful season behind him, McCollum flirted with leaving for the NBA, but the lure of getting a college degree, another go around with his teammates, and finishing his college experience was just too much for him to pass up. And while many think that Reed may now be able to recruit “bigger” or “better” players, the ones big schools go after, his recruiting pitch is still the same.
“We have had a formula for success that we want to continue to use going forward,” Reed says. “That formula includes identifying individuals who really want to capitalize on the great degree Lehigh can provide while also being part of a successful basketball program with the chance to win championships, and C.J. shows that you can not only enjoy the experience from a team level but an individual one as well.”
The formula has Reed and the Mountain Hawks in a position to win their third conference championship in four years next season. It is also the formula that has McCollum on the verge of the NBA, but not before he gets one more year with the small school on a hill that took a chance on him five years ago when no one else would.
Will he have a long career in the NBA?
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