LAS VEGAS -- "We're about to take it to you guys."
When he heard that taunt, it all came rushing back. All the slights, all the doubts, all the schools who thought C.J. McCollum was too small, or too thin, or too out of position to play big-time college basketball. The words were uttered by a Duke player during layup lines prior to the Blue Devils' NCAA tournament second-round game against Lehigh last March in Greensboro, N.C. The player directed his taunt right at McCollum, a 6-foot-3 junior shooting guard and the reigning Patriot League Player of the Year. McCollum did not suffer it gladly. "I'm a laid-back kind of guy. Most of the time I just play the game," he says, "But I wasn't happy about that at all."
So McCollum gathered his teammates and delivered an important message, right there on the court: "Be ready to play." Recalling the moment last week, he flashed -- ahem -- a devilish smile. "I already had a lot of motivation in that game, but that just added fuel to the fire," McCollum said. "Win or lose, I wanted to make sure we played as hard as we could."
What transpired over the next two hours was the stuff of legend. Little C.J. McCollum from little Lehigh from the little Patriot League took it right to the biggest, baddest program in the land. McCollum sliced through the Blue Devils for 30 points, six rebounds and six assists as 15th-seeded Lehigh stunned No. 2 Duke, 75-70. It was just the sixth time in NCAA tournament history that a No. 15 seed had defeated a No. 2. (It was also the second such upset that day, coming a few hours after Norfolk State knocked off Missouri.) The game was straight out of Hoosiers, with McCollum still echoing one of that movie's most memorable lines. "I felt like I was representing a lot of other guys from small schools around the country," he says. "I wanted to show we can play with anybody."
The triumph has led to some very big things for C.J. McCollum. He was one of 45 elite college players who were invited to work out in front of dozens of NBA scouts last week at the Nike-sponsored LeBron James Skills Academy at Rancho High School in Las Vegas. McCollum's inclusion in that group sealed his status as an All-America candidate entering the 2012-13 season. And his performance in those sessions fortified his reputation as a future pro.
"Oh, I'd say he's definitely a first rounder," one scout said after watching the college players work out. "He's fast, he's quick, he's good with the ball, he has a nice stroke. Position is a bit of a question because at his size he'll have to be more of a point guard in our league, but he's definitely going to have a chance to show people what he can do."
McCollum has also made a believer out of another fellow who was working in Las Vegas last week -- Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who is also the coach of the U.S. national team that was practicing at UNLV to prepare for the London Olympics. "First of all, he believes he's good. Second, he is good." Krzyzewski said during a quiet moment at his hotel. "He has a game that's very versatile. He can shoot, he can go by you, he's a really good foul shooter. He's one of the really good guards in the country, and he'll have a chance to be a pro, primarily because of his length."
The idea that McCollum's size is being invoked as an asset is a very tall irony indeed. For most of his life, he has been dismissed for being too small -- with good reason. As a freshman at Glen Oak High School in Canton, Ohio, McCollum stood all of 5-2, 108 pounds. He grew a little bit the next two years, but he was still a 5-11, 150-pound wisp going into his junior season. One of McCollum's high school teammates was Kosta Koufos, a 7-foot center who spent a year at Ohio State and now plays for the Denver Nuggets. McCollum played many games in front of high-major coaches like Thad Matta, Billy Donovan and Rick Pitino, but he might as well have been invisible. He was right in front of their eyes, but nobody saw him.
When you grow up as the smallest kid on the court, you get tired of people looking down at you. To this day, McCollum can rattle off the names of players who received offers to midmajor schools that McCollum wanted to recruit him. He points out that 10 of the 12 Division I schools in his home state, and nearly all of the Mid-American Conference, passed him up. "That kind of put a chip on my shoulder," he says.
With his Division I options dwindling, McCollum caught the eye of Matt Logan, who was then an assistant coach at Lehigh. Logan arranged for several of McCollum's high school game videos to be sent to head coach Brett Reed. "I was watching and saying to myself, 'That's the right play....That's the right play,' " Reed says. "It didn't look like he should be able to get to the rim, but he did." Reed was even more sold when he saw McCollum in person at a grassroots tournament in West Virginia during the spring of his junior year. "I was just thinking, don't mess this up," McCollum says. "I was a small guy, under the radar. I knew I had to play well because you can get judged on one game."
McCollum's play at that tournament didn't elicit many of the scholarship offers he was hoping for, but he did get recruited by Bowling Green, Toledo and Fairfield, among others. Lehigh, however, had gotten there first, and after he visited the campus the following September, McCollum decided to sign a letter of intent. He went on to have a fabulous senior season, averaging 29.3 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.5 assists en route to being named Ohio's Gatorade Player of the Year. Yet, he never considered asking out of his commitment to pursue greener pastures. "I wanted to go where I was wanted," he says. "Lehigh recruited me from the start. I knew I would be able to come in and play right away."
Remarkably, McCollum kept growing after he enrolled in college. By the time his freshman season began, he stood 6-2. A year later, he was 6-3. The extra inches helped make him a star. After he dropped 24 points in his freshman home debut against Quinnipiac, Lehigh's athletic director sidled up to Reed and marveled, "That kid can really score." McCollum's 19.1 scoring average was tops in the nation among freshmen, and he ended the season as the first player in the history of the Patriot League to be named Player and Rookie of the Year. The Mountain Hawks won the league tournament that season, and as a No. 16 seed in the NCAA tournament, they stayed with top-seeded Kansas through the midway point of the second half before the Jayhawks pulled away to win, 90-74. McCollum finished with 26 points.
McCollum ranked ninth in the nation in scoring (21.8) as a sophomore and fifth (21.9) as a junior, while also ranking second in the Patriot League in rebounds (6.5). Last season, the Mountain Hawks played St. John's, Iowa State and Michigan State, and while they lost all three games, their ability to hang close bolstered their confidence heading into the NCAA tournament. "I was nervous when we played Kansas, but this time I wasn't nervous at all," McCollum says. "Our whole team was confident."
It showed against Duke, and if McCollum took umbrage at the trash talk sent his way during warm-ups, it was he who was caught by the television cameras woofing at the Duke bench after draining several long-range jumpers. As the game was nearing its end, McCollum admonished his teammates not to celebrate excessively on the court. He wanted them to act like they had been there before, even if they hadn't.
The Mountain Hawks' season ended in their next game against Xavier, at which time McCollum faced the unanticipated conundrum of having to decide whether he should turn pro. He entered the NBA draft but did not hire an agent. Reed canvassed several NBA general managers and reported back to McCollum that although there was a good possibility he would go in the first round, there was no guarantee. McCollum admits coming close to leaving (especially during exams), but he decided to return for his senior season.
"I'm realistic about myself," he says. "I thought I was ready physically, but I wasn't ready mentally for the lifestyle. I figured I'm getting a $200,000 scholarship, and I promised my mom I would get my degree. I can still improve my stock and have another year to enjoy the college experience."
He has certainly been enjoying the college experience this summer. McCollum attended Chris Paul's Elite Point Guard Camp in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, as well as Kevin Durant's Skills Academy in Chicago a few days later. In Las Vegas, he was assigned to the same team as Duke center Mason Plumlee. While there was no trash talking about what happened in Greensboro -- "I didn't know if it was still a sore spot for him" -- he did hear from Rodney Hood, a sophomore forward who just transferred to Duke from Mississippi State, that the Duke coaches invoke his name during individual workouts, telling the players, "This is what C.J. McCollum did to you." The script has officially been flipped: McCollum is now adding fuel to Duke's fire.
Indeed, McCollum understands that life is different for him now. There will be no more flying under the radar. With six of its top nine players returning, Lehigh will be the prohibitive favorite to win the Patriot League. McCollum, who will most likely finish his career as the leading scorer in school and league history, will be at the top of every opponent's scouting report. And the NBA scouts will form a conga line to Bethlehem, Pa., where they will place McCollum under their powerful, unforgiving microscopes.
Not surprisingly, McCollum is not cowed by any of those things. He spent his whole life begging for this kind of recognition. He believes he is ready for his close up. "I know people will pick my game apart, but that doesn't bother me. Everybody has weaknesses," he says. "I'd rather have a problem where too many people are showing up. It's a lot better than being invisible."