Commentary

They've heard of C.J. McCollum now

Lehigh's junior guard scores 30 in an epic upset over second-seeded Duke

Originally Published: March 16, 2012
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- When Lehigh guard C.J. McCollum was a freshman at GlenOak High School in Canton, Ohio, he was only 5 feet, 2 inches.

He grew 5 inches as a sophomore, 4 inches as a junior and 3 inches as a senior.

"I knew the growth spurt was coming," McCollum said. "I just prayed it came before graduation."

McCollum's growth spurt came before he left high school, but his lack of height caused him to get overlooked by most major college basketball programs.

[+] EnlargeC.J. McCollum
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonC.J. McCollum's sixth 30-point game of the season came at a perfect time.

On Friday night, McCollum finally had a chance to show those teams what they missed, as he scored 30 points to help lead the 15th-seeded Mountain Hawks to a 75-70 upset of No. 2 seed Duke in a South Regional second-round game at Greensboro Coliseum.

Before Friday, there hadn't been a 15-over-2 upset since 2001 and there had been only four since the field expanded in 1985. Then there were two within hours, as Norfolk State stunned Missouri in a West Regional game in Omaha, Neb., earlier in the night.

And while that outcome might have been more surprising because the Tigers were considered a potential Final Four contender, Lehigh's victory might have been even more unlikely. Given Missouri's frustrating basketball history, the Tigers are almost expected to stub their toes. But Duke rarely loses its first game in the NCAA tournament, especially in its home state.

"The game is a great game," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "I've been in it for 37 years, and it takes you to incredible highs. And it also takes you to incredible lows. And tonight's one of those lows. But it wasn't just our doing; they played that well. They played that well. And again, my hat's off to them."

Like Norfolk State, the Mountain Hawks had never won an NCAA tournament game. Meanwhile, the Blue Devils had never lost in 12 previous NCAA tournament games at Greensboro Coliseum and were 32-4 when playing in North Carolina. Duke was previously 28-0 against opponents seeded 12th or lower in the NCAAs and had won 25 of its previous 27 opening-round games under Krzyzewski.

"We didn't have anything to lose as a 15-seed," McCollum said. "We just wanted to battle back and play as hard as we could. They were the team under all the pressure. They were the team everybody had in the Sweet 16."

Instead, the Mountain Hawks are one victory away from playing in the Sweet 16. They'll play 10-seed Xavier in Sunday's third round.

"This is one of the best feelings in the world," McCollum said. "I can remember some times in high school when times were tough and I didn't know if I'd get to keep playing basketball because I was struggling and short."

This is one of the best feelings in the world. I can remember some times in high school when times were tough and I didn't know if I'd get to keep playing basketball because I was struggling and short.

-- Lehigh's C.J. McCollum

Against Duke, McCollum looked like the best player on the floor, outdueling Blue Devils guards Austin Rivers and Seth Curry, who are considered potential NBA draft picks. Duke's guards struggled to contain McCollum, who made nine of 24 shots with six rebounds and six assists.

"Him being on the floor makes everybody better," Krzyzewski said. "So if we could have fouled him out or got him into foul trouble, that would have been the best strategy because he just makes people better. When you are playing with an outstanding player, especially if he passes you the ball, you believe you should hit the shot. We have had that in our program numerous times. If [Christian] Laettner passes to somebody, I'm supposed to shoot it."

McCollum's father, Errick McCollum, isn't sure how his son was overlooked in high school. C.J. McCollum was the Ohio Gatorade Player of the Year as a senior at GlenOak in 2009, setting a school record with 1,405 career points. Other mid-major programs such as Akron, Boise State, Fairfield, Lafayette, Navy and St. Bonaventure recruited McCollum, but bigger teams pretty much ignored him.

"He was a 5-2 freshman," Errick McCollum said. "All those coaches and scouts don't know what they're doing. They have jobs to scout talent, but they don't know what they're doing. A plain eye can see that."

C.J. McCollum's mother, Kathy Andrews, knew her son would grow taller because his older brother, Errick McCollum III, had a similar growth spurt and now plays professional basketball in Israel.

"I knew he was going to get taller," Andrews said. "His brother is 6-feet-5."

Lehigh coach Brett Reed scouted C.J. McCollum during the spring before his senior season of high school. He was willing to ignore McCollum's lack of height because his game was so refined.

"When I first saw him, I thought he was a phenomenal player," Reed said. "I was willing to overlook his lack of size and strength. Ultimately, what I admired most in C.J.'s game was his feel, vision and shooting touch."

Named the Patriot League player of the year twice in the past three seasons, McCollum went into the game as the country's fifth-leading scorer, averaging 21.9 points per game.

[+] EnlargeDuke
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesFor the first time in school history, Duke lost to a team seeded 12th or lower.

On Friday night, he proved his talent against one of the sport's most storied programs.

"They had the best player on the court tonight in McCollum," Krzyzewski said. "He's been their player of the year, and he's really one of the outstanding players in the country. You could see why tonight."

This certainly wasn't one of Krzyzewski's best teams, but the Blue Devils could never have expected to lose their first game of the tournament. Sure, Duke played without junior forward Ryan Kelly, its third-leading scorer and rebounder, who missed his third consecutive game with a foot injury. But the Devils also shot 6-for-26 on 3-pointers and had 12 turnovers.

"We have not shot well for about three weeks," Krzyzewski said. "We weren't shooting well when Ryan was in. And then when he went out, we continued not to shoot well. We're not a juggernaut or anything like that. We have known that throughout the whole season. You have to do it pretty precise, and we just didn't play well offensively the last few weeks of the season."

The Blue Devils also had to overcome foul trouble after Curry picked up his fourth with 17:49 to go in the second half. Curry finished with seven points on 1-for-9 shooting; Rivers had 19 points on 5-for-14 shooting.

In the closing seconds, Reed turned to his bench and told his players to "act like you've been here before."

The Mountain Hawks actually hadn't been in such a big spotlight before, but they handled the victory like they expected to win.

"You could feel the emotional energy, and it would have been easy for that to override our senses," Reed said. "The last thing we wanted was to act like this was something out of the realm of possibility. That's not what we sold our team. We told them they could win."

Mark Schlabach | email

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