"C.J. makes everything look very easy," said Lehigh coach Britt Reed. "But that's just an indication of how talented he is."
As usual, in Lehigh's 73-66 win over Penn at Stabler Arena on Tuesday night, McCollum made the Quakers sweat. He had 21 points, and through five games, including losses to Baylor and Pitt, is averaging 25.6 points.
A projected first-team all-American before the season, McCollum figures to be a lofty NBA pick at its end. On Nov. 9 at Baylor, 20 pro scouts watched the senior guard get 36 points in a 99-77 Baylor victory.
All of which raises the obvious question: How did he end up at Lehigh, an engineering institution better known for geeks than guards?
Despite impressive numbers as a Canton, Ohio, high school junior, McCollum, 5-11 then, scared off many recruiters. So, seeking a place where basketball wouldn't overshadow academics, he committed early to Lehigh.
"He was on the smaller side, the thinner side," Reed said. "Many people probably took those as negatives. I just saw a basketball player."
By the time he graduated from Glen Oak High, McCollum was 6-2, Ohio's player of the year, and the reason a lot of major-college coaches were kicking themselves.
"I'm very content with my decision," McCollum said. "I'm blessed to be in a situation where I can get a good degree. . . . I'm sure everybody thinks, 'What would my life be like if I went somewhere else?' I don't think that way."
Reed credited former assistant Matt Logie for uncovering the easygoing son of a steelworker father and insurance agent mother.
"The first time I saw him, I said, 'I've seen enough. I think this guy can really help us.' That might have been the understatement of the year," Reed said.
While basketball insiders knew him - he's twice been Patriot League player of the year and could become Lehigh's all-time scoring leader and first NBA product - he was off the national radar until March 16.
That night, he scored 30 points as 15th-seeded Lehigh upset No. 2 Duke in an NCAA tournament stunner. Typically, McCollum reacted calmly. While happy teammates hopped and hammed, he seemed content with a quiet smile.
"The Duke game put us on the map," McCollum said. "There were eight million viewers. . . . Whenever you can get a win on that stage, everyone's going to recognize you. But we don't just want to be known as the team that beat Duke. . . . We're hoping to make another run, win another championship, enjoy the rest of our careers."
Preparing for the pros
That career nearly ended last summer, when McCollum declared for the NBA draft. But after conversations with his parents and some NBA input, he returned for his senior season.
"My parents were totally with me," he said. "They trusted the way they raised me. It was a hard decision, but ultimately the education outweighed everything."
McCollum's college career will always be defined by that memorable March weekend. Between the Duke win and a near-upset of Xavier, he faced more cameras and questions than he'd ever imagined. Soon came a trip to Los Angeles for the ESPYs - where Lehigh's upset was an award candidate - then invitations to three elite camps run by Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, and LeBron James.
A more natural wing man, McCollum hoped to bolster his point guard skills for the NBA. He reached out to Paul, and the two have become regular texting partners.
Several basketball websites rate McCollum among the 2013 draft's top 15 prospects. "Arguably the most prolific offensive talent" among the prospective point guards was NBADraftExpress.com's evaluation.
As devoted as he is to basketball, the popular McCollum has a broader campus life. He serves on Lehigh's Student Athletic Council, writes for the school newspaper, and works in the sports information office.
"He covered a girls' soccer game for us," said Justin Lafleur, assistant director of sports information. "His story was twice as good as anything I could have done."
The success of 2011-12, when Lehigh beat regular-season Patriot League champ Bucknell on the Bisons' court to earn the NCAA berth, then leapt into the tournament headlines, might be hard to duplicate. Bucknell is 5-0, having beaten Purdue and New Mexico State, and hungry for revenge.
Still, the Mountain Hawks have their top two scorers back - McCollum and Gabe Knutson - and a newly won reputation.
"We're looking to dominate this league . . . to show guys that last year wasn't a fluke," McCollum said. "We're looking to try to build a legacy. It's going to be a tough journey. There's Bucknell and a lot of good teams. But we want to go out with a bang."
Contact Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068, email@example.com.