In recent years, Duke has been known for their back court players, be it Austin Rivers, Kyrie Irving, Nolan Smith, JJ Redick, Jay Williams … I could go on.
So that’s why the most shocking part of No. 15 Lehigh’s upset win over No. 2 Duke on Friday wasn’t necessarily the fact that the Mountain Hawks won — I’ve been on this all week, I’m just sayin’ (#humblebrag) — but that their star guard CJ McCollum was the best back court player on the floor.
And that it wasn’t even close.
McCollum finished with 30 points, seven boards and six assists for the Mountain Hawks, making numerous big time plays down the stretch. He’s a good-but-not-great shooter, athletic enough to get to the rim and crafty enough to finish among the trees or dump the ball off to a big man. In other words, he is exactly what you are looking for out of a lead guard at the college level.
“They had the best player on the court tonight in McCollum,” Duke coach Mike 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.”
Keep in mind, we’re talking about a player that, as a freshman, averaged 19.1 ppg and was named Patriot League Player of the Year. He didn’t develop over four years. He’s a junior, and he was a stud the minute he stepped on campus.
So it begs the question: why is he at Lehigh?
As a freshman in Ohio, McCollum was just 5-foot-5. As a junior, he was barely 6-feet. He led his county in scoring for back-to-back seasons, but it wasn’t until he was signed with Lehigh that he grew to 6-foot-3 and went from a kid that couldn’t get a scholarship offer from Akron or Kent State to one that may have the NBA in his future.
Kids like McCollum are what make the NCAA tournament so great. He’s a non-entity on the national scene. I know who he is. Diehard fans know who he is. Folks that follow Patriot League basketball know who he is. But the majority of the country, and every casual fan, would have been clueless if you asked them who McCollum was a week ago.
And now he’s a star, a guy that led a tiny university in Bethlehem, PA, to an upset of the Duke Blue Devils on national TV.
“I told my teammates all year whenever in doubt get me the ball and I’ll make a play for us,” McCollum said.
I hope you enjoy the spotlight, CJ.
Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.