The NCAA Tournament is not necessarily about being the best, but more so about getting hot at the right time; just in time to have a defining moment. And while C.J. McCollum and Lehigh University didn’t make it to the Final Four or National Championship, they certainly had a shining moment last year, knocking off Duke in the first round of the tournament. McCollum was the star, scorching the Blue Devils for 30 points, seven rebounds and six assists. Entering that game, McCollum was a two-time Patriot League Player of the Year and the country’s fifth leading scorer, so getting buckets was nothing new. Doing it in the tournament against “America’s team” was though. Whereas most players would have ridden that momentum straight into the NBA Draft, McCollum bypassed that option and decided to return to school for his senior season.
“There was definitely a lot of temptation,” says the Mountain Hawks combo guard. “There was a possibility that I could go in the first round, and that was one of the things that made the decision tough – the possibility of being a first round draft pick in the NBA, accomplishing your ultimate goal and your dream from childhood, playing at the highest level. It definitely made the decision tough. It was probably the hardest decision I ever had to make in my life, but at the end of the day I’m comfortable with the decision and looking forward to my senior season.”
He cites the opportunity to mature and improve as a ballplayer, enjoy college life and attain his degree most importantly as the primary reasons he decided to return to school. Perhaps most impressive is the way he went about announcing his decision. Most in his position would simply hold a press conference and let somebody else tell their story – McCollum wrote his own article which ran in the Sporting News. “I felt like writing it and putting it in my own words would give a clear perspective on why I really came back,” he says. “A lot of guys have interviews, but for me to write it out myself, I could tell exactly how I felt at the time, state where I was at and put my own byline in there.”
McCollum is a journalism major, so telling his own story was right up his alley. In addition to hooping, being the top scoring freshman in the country, and the best player in his conference going on four years straight, he spends his off time putting pen to paper. “I write for The Brown And White, which is our school newspaper,” he said. “I’m also the Sports Editor there, and I also have a publication for Lehigh Sports. I’m interning with Lehigh Sports media relations and write about four stories a week that go on the website, LehighSports.com.”
So, while getting off in the tournament did wonders for his post-college job security, he’s done plenty to put himself in a solid position already, whether that involves playing basketball or not. There’s no doubt that McCollum is one of the top players in the country with a bright chance of making it to the League. It took many until last year’s tournament to figure that out, but it’s something he’s known the entire time. He didn’t surprise himself, he expected it because he’d put the necessary work in. Being lowly recruited out of high school, where coaches from big-time programs passed on him questioning his size and position, McCollum has long been operating with a chip on his shoulder. The Duke game was simply another chance to prove what he already knew.
“It didn’t really do much to my [personal] confidence. I was always confident in myself and knew I could play with those guys and perform at a high level. I just needed a chance to do it on the right stage,” said the 6-foot-3 Canton, Ohio product. “I think it [the Duke win] did a lot for the university and the [Patriot] League itself. It gave us more exposure and a lot more media attention. In terms of publicity for me, I think it’s done a great deal. I’m getting a lot more accolades and recognition, so I’ve got to go out and perform because a lot of preseason accolades don’t really mean much. I think it’s better for our team, to see that we can compete against those bigger schools and that they’re no different than us besides the name on the front of the jersey.”
Stephen Curry took a similar path of ascendance in his three years at Davidson, using the NCAA Tournament as the platform to show the world what he can do, tearing down premiere programs like Georgetown and Wisconsin almost single-handedly. “I think Steph Curry has been a great influence on a lot of mid-major players and a lot of people across the country in terms of work ethic and what it takes to make it to the next level. He’s laid the blueprint.” Thus, it’s now McCollum’s turn to become a household name if he’s not one already. He spent much of his summer attending elite camps like the LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Chris Paul skills academies, and was named a Preseason All-American, still with a high possibility of hearing his name called in the first round of the 2013 NBA Draft in June.
But that’s not his biggest concern right now. He’s focused on Lehigh University and carrying them back to the Big Dance. He picked up where he left off in last year’s tournament going for 36 points and eight boards against Baylor in a loss in the first game of this season. “I’m not trying to outdo anything I did last year, I’m just trying to be the best me I can by working hard everyday, taking advantage of every rep and enjoying myself. That’s the biggest thing, you gotta have fun. At the end of the day, you want to win the game you’ve been playing all of your life, but you’ve gotta have fun doing it and trust the work that you put in, and that’s what I’m gonna do. I’ve put in a lot of work, worked extremely hard and am capable of fulfilling a lot of special things this year but it’s gonna take a team effort and I believe if we have the mindset then we’ll have a great year rebuilding what we had last year.”