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Former recruit returns to haunt SFU

December 9, 2012
By Nate Foreman ( , The Altoona Mirror

LORETTO - It's been a long time since a player of C.J. McCollum's caliber visited St. Francis.

As it turns out, Saturday afternoon wasn't the first time the Associated Press, Lute Olsen and The Sporting News preseason first-team All-American was in DeGol Arena.

McCollum - a 6-foot-3 senior for the Lehigh men's basketball team - made an unofficial visit with his family during his senior year of high school as a prospect of the Red Flash.

And the bad news - for St. Francis, obviously - was that the young phenom said the university had a "legitimate shot" to persuade a committment.

"They had a shot," McCollum said. "It depended a lot on what my family liked and what I liked, but they definitely had a legitimate shot.

"I felt they had the potential to be a good team. I liked what the coach [former coach Don Friday] presented to me, getting playing time right away. I thought it was a good university, but I felt I had better opportunities, and I liked Lehigh a little bit better."

Both visits went well, but neither of them were in St. Francis' favor.

McCollum had a game-high 29 points in Lehigh's 83-67 win over the Red Flash on Saturday.

"We recruited the kid," St. Francis coach Rob Krimmel said. "He was a kid that everyone knew was going to be good, but I don't think anyone expected him to be this good.

"We got in a little bit late [on the recruiting process]. We went out to visit him. But Lehigh did a tremendous job. They were probably a couple of months ahead of us in that process."

McCollum and the Mountain Hawks jumped into the national spotlight last March when 15th-seeded Lehigh upset second-seeded Duke in the South Region of the NCAA Tournament.

It was only the sixth time in history that an upset of that magnitude occurred in the national tournament - 15th-seeded Norfolk State did it the same day when it held off second-seeded Missouri in the West Region - and McCollum's 30 points led all scorers in the game.

Lehigh also got 17 points from Gabe Knutson and 11 points from Mackey McKnight.

And because of that win, a lot of extra attention has been given not only to McCollum, but the entire team as well.

"It's been fun," McCollum said. "This is my last year of college basketball. I'm enjoying every moment of it. There's a lot of media attention, a lot of exposure and notoriety, but with all of that being said, we've definitely enjoyed the ride. We're trying to not put too much pressure on ourselves and just try to have fun and get wins."

"I actually have to give them a great deal of credit for their maturity," Lehigh coach Brett Reed said of his team. "Fortunately, we have a pretty strong senior class. That makes a big difference. There is the appreciation of what we've been able to do as a program, even through the start of this year."

Lehigh (8-2) is off to its best start since the 1938-39 season, and even with its balanced offense, the team may not necessarily be in its current position if McCollum would have remained eligible for the NBA draft.

But everyone is grateful he came back - maybe except for everyone Lehigh plays.

"It's rewarding to be on the same team and wear the same jersey as him," McKnight said. "I'm enjoying every moment learning from him. It's makes us a better team."

"I'm very appreciative [he stayed in school]," Reed said. "He makes me a better coach. I'll be the first to admit that. It helps me, it helps our program because our team is a better team with him there. I think ultimately it has helped him as well. His stock has continued to rise, even from a noteable performance in the last postseason."

Every time St. Francis found a little momentum on Saturday, McCollum, Knutson or McKnight were there to preserve the lead.

Knutson finished with 18 points, and McKnight had 13.

"Give their guys credit," Krimmel said. "When they needed to make a play to stop one of our runs, they did. McCollum and Knutson were very good tonight. They had some big plays.

"I think that if we have guys that can sit back and look at the game and how certain players play and how certain players prepare, hopefully they see what a great player looks like."

Even Umar Shannon's 26 points and Dom Major's 15 for the Red Flash (0-8) were overshadowed by the buzz generated by McCollum.

There hasn't been a first-team All-American, preseason or postseason, to play in Loretto since Feb. 5, 1966 when Providence's Jimmy Walker was in town.

"C.J. McCollum has continued to be grounded," Reed said. "Even with his personal accolades, he always deflects praise. He always comes in the gym early and spends extra time - he's set the model for that.

"When we do go on the road, I know he does get a lot of attention not only through opponents and their game plan, but the fans have been able to enjoy and appreciate a pretty smooth and fluid player that is an excellent, excellent basketball player at the college level and will be even at the next level."

McCollum could have easily opted out of his senior year of college to play in the NBA, but his education was more important.

Several sources project him from being selected anywhere from ninth to 15th overall in next year's draft.

"Getting my degree was the biggest thing for me and my family," McCollum said. "We pride in our education. That was the most important thing.

"And then games like this - being able to be a senior, travel with your friends and your teammates, just enjoy the college experience. It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I wasn't quite ready for the real world, so-to-speak, so I figured I'd come back and enjoy being a kid with minimum responsibilities."

Even if meant delaying playing basketball professionally, Reed says there was another reason the nation's third leading scorer came back.

"The most impressive thing, though, is that you're talking about a young man who played extremely well on a national stage, had an opportunity to go to the NBA - which is a life-long dream for him - yet he put enough value on his education that he really wanted to come back and get his degree," Reed said.

"He put enough value in the relationships in the teammates that he had to help them continue that journey. He put enough value in himself that he wasn't afriad to come back, even though he would be scrutinized because, to his own credit, he said he had unfinished business."

LEHIGH (8-2): Greiner 2-3 3-4 8, Knutson 6-11 4-4 18, D'Orazio 1-5 0-0 2, McCollum 8-15 11-11 29, McKnight 4-8 2-2 13, Carter 0-1 0-0 0, Schaefer 0-1 0-0 0, Cvrkalj 2-4 2-3 7, Goldsborough 0-0 0-0 0, Baltimore 2-2 2-2 6. Totals 25-50 24-26 83.

ST. FRANCIS (0-8): Ritter 0-4 4-4 4, Drinnon 1-2 0-0 2, Mosley 4-7 0-0 8, Shannon 8-19 7-9 26, G. Brown 2-5 0-0 4, Whyatt 1-5 0-0 2, Millaud-Meunier 1-4 0-0 2, Major 5-12 0-0 15, Peters 0-0 0-0 0, Ervin 0-1 4-4 4. Totals 22-59 15-17 67.

Halftime-Lehigh 43-28. 3-Point Goals-Lehigh 9-20 (McKnight 3-6, Knutson 2-3, McCollum 2-5, Cvrkalj 1-1, Greiner 1-2, D'Orazio 0-3), St. Francis (Pa.) 8-25 (Major 5-9, Shannon 3-7, G. Brown 0-2, Whyatt 0-2, Millaud-Meunier 0-2, Ritter 0-3). Fouled Out-None. Rebounds-Lehigh 35 (McCollum 9), St. Francis 29 (Mosley 5). Assists-Lehigh 14 (McKnight 5), St. Francis 17 (Whyatt 5). Total Fouls-Lehigh 12, St. Francis 18. A-1,526.

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