|McCollum played up to his rep Friday night and was nearly unguardable, but the rest of the team couldn't defend to keep Lehigh competitive vs. Baylor. (US Presswire)|
If it's possible to look really good in a game your team loses by 22 and plays some of the worst defense it could in any season, C.J. McCollum just did it.
When we last saw McCollum and Lehigh, the 15th-seeded Patriot League team was upsetting No. 2 Duke in the Round of 64 of the 2012 NCAA tournament. The Mountain Hawks fell 70-58 in the next round to Xavier, but the damage was done, a temporary reputation was established and McCollum's prospects as a future NBA draft pick were coming to be.
He followed that up with a 36-point debut Friday night in Waco, but Lehigh fell 99-77 to No. 19 Baylor. The Bears are undoubtedly talented -- I'm not sure any team will look better getting off the bus this year -- but let's talk about the small guy here. We've got all year to talk about Baylor; this was one of the few times Lehigh and McCollum will get TV time this season -- and even Friday's game wasn't broadcast nationally.
I talked with McCollum on the phone shortly after the loss. He was in good spirits, but let down by the team's defense, naturally. Lehigh was shorthanded, it should be noted, as starting forward Gabe Knutson was out, as was projected starter B.J. Bailey. Knutson missed the game due to a knee sprain (he's expected back soon), and Bailey was kept out as a precaution after he hit his head in practice earlier this week.
McCollum said Baylor was obviously prepared and ready for him and his teammates. There was no sneaking up on them.
"They were pretty aware of who we were, and teams in the past didn't necessarily know as much about us," he said, adding that Baylor was the most athletic team he's ever faced, rivaled only by the Kansas team of a few years ago that had the Morris twins.
As for not having Knutson, McCollum said, "Gabe is an all-league guy, with his interior play, and defense, we were hurt without it. We couldn't spread the floor."
Watching the game, McCollum was a joy to see. He split Baylor double teams with ease, the kind of moves that are tailor-made for the NBA. He wasn't really shut down at all, grabbing eight boards and snaring three steals. The issue was this: McCollum had to take it upon himself to win the game, and he hoisted 32 shots, making only 14. His teammates were largely helpless about him; only guard Mackey McKnight also got into double figures (14 points).
"Going into this game I looked at the film and knew what to expect," he said. "They were great and very dogged on hedging on ball screens and taking the ball away from the handlers. It was everything we expected ... and defensively (for Lehigh), their post game gave us a lot of problems. Pierre Jackson used a lot of ball screens, too."
The hope was to contain Jackson and fight over the top of the screen, but he split them nearly as frequently as McCollum did. McCollum sees the upcoming year as an opportunity to provide for his team in every way, and it's hard to convey this through only the quote, but his tone here was really intentional.
"I've got to be a better leader this year and do a better job with that, first on defense," he said. "The team follows me a lot, and trying to make sure, to be a better team, it starts with me."
As for Lehigh head coach Brett Reed, once he got back to the team hotel, he went right to the game film to study what went wrong.
"Their length and athleticism really bothered us," he said, "but in losing our second-leading scorer in Knutson, we didn't have as much reliability. Second part being, it's hard for me to project what Baylor did or did not want to do [with McCollum]. When we've been at our best, C.J. has been involved with our offense but hasn't dominated the ball like he did tonight. I was going into this game knowing that was going to be a possibility. I was tring to figure out where we were going to manufacture points."
Reed added that he didn't want to use the fact he wad down two guys on the road against a talented, ranked major-conference team as an excuse.
We'll have more on Baylor and freshman big man Isaiah Austin's injury later Friday night, in Night Court -- our daily wrap-up of all things college hoops.