This story was originally published in Dime 70. Check newsstands nationwide now to see it in its entirety.
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Each year when Rivals, Scout and ESPN make their annual top-150 lists of the best recruits in the country, there are some players that slip through the cracks. These guys are the ones programs like Lehigh University must pursue. But sometimes, teams like Lehigh get lucky, and they find a diamond in the rough. Lehigh found that with C.J. McCollum.
McCollum was part of the loaded high school class of 2009. It featured top-5 NBA Draft Picks like John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Derrick Favors, as well as the SEC’s leading scorer of the past two years, John Jenkins. Yet none of them led the nation in scoring as a freshman. McCollum, the lightly recruited point guard out of Canton, Ohio, did. McCollum had stood at under 6-0 for much of his high school career, and his lack of size was an immediate disqualifier for high-major programs. He ultimately attended Lehigh. Why?
“Everybody asks me that question,” he says. “They started recruiting me during my junior year. I scored 54 points in my season opener that year and after that Lehigh began recruiting me really hard with mailouts, in-home visits, and just constantly staying up to date on me. I really liked the academics, it’s a top academic school, and they were my first official visit and I knew that I would have a chance to play right away and a chance to make it to the NCAA Tournament.”
Some can’t believe McCollum didn’t have bigger offers. Lehigh is not a basketball school. Their athletic teams were formerly nicknamed the “Engineers” before becoming the Mountain Hawks. Stars like McCollum don’t belong at places like this, people say, they belong at a higher level. But for McCollum, this was the biggest level available, much to the advantage of Lehigh coach Dr. Brett Reed.
“When I first saw C.J. play,” Reed remembers, “I thought to myself this is someone who has a very high basketball IQ and feel for the game with a unique ability to score. However, his physical tools weren’t necessarily the most impressive thing as he was a little bit undersized and a little bit thin. But when you start to look it all over, we knew this kid could play, despite his size, and it was validated by the type of high character kid he was.”
Upon arriving on campus in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, McCollum immediately seized the starting point guard job, and began making a name for himself in a way he hadn’t been able to in high school. He averaged 19 points a game and won the Patriot League Player of the Year award.
Many were surprised. McCollum wasn’t.
“I expected to have a big impact,” he says. “I worked really hard in the summer prior to coming to school and I put a lot of time in, and I knew that as long as I was given an opportunity that I would be able to come in and play and have an impact. I’m not going to necessarily say that I expected to lead the nation in scoring or anything like that but I knew that I could help my team get to the championship and that as long as coach put me on the floor I could produce because I was definitely prepared.”
However, the most rewarding part of his freshman year was not the individual accolades but the team accomplishments. Lehigh won the Patriot League Championship and faced Kansas in the first round of the NCAA Tournament as a No. 16 seed. Getting a chance to play one of the greatest programs in America on the biggest stage in college basketball was something McCollum would never forget.
“I remember looking up in the stands and seeing about 20,000 or so fans with about 18,000 of them for Kansas because we were playing in Oklahoma City,” he recalls. “It was a great experience for us as a team and I got to face a lot of future NBA players and test myself against them and that experience definitely served as motivation for me to get back there.”
While McCollum was tearing it up on the court, he was just as busy off the court. For many players, the academic and extracurricular side of the college experience tends to get overshadowed by the basketball. However, for McCollum, this would never be an issue.
Beginning in the second semester of his freshman year, he started to write for The Brown and White, Lehigh’s school newspaper. As a journalism major, with the goal of becoming a basketball analyst, McCollum began covering sports for the paper, ranging from cross country to soccer, and spent his spare time in the newsroom or in front of his computer. His favorite story was a feature piece on Lehigh wrestler Zach Rey, a national champion during his junior season.
“I liked doing the story on Zach because it was a feature story,” McCollum says. “I liked it because it was a personal story where you combined the different points of view that his teammates and coaches had, along with his own and you got to piece together the story that way.”
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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