Lehigh's preseason All-American competing in Preseason NIT

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C.J. McCollum became an overnight sensation in March when he scored 30 points in Lehigh's shocking upset of Duke in the second round of the NCAA tournament. But that performance confirmed what many NBA scouts already had known -- that McCollum could play in the NBA even though he competed in the Patriot League, which only once in its 26-year history has produced an NBA draft pick.

After the NCAA tournament, McCollum was projected as a first-round pick and several NBA executives told Lehigh coach Brett Reed that McCollum should strike while the iron was hot and leave college a year early to turn professional.

McCollum refused to take the advice. He had an important promise to keep to his parents.

"A lot of things went into the decision, but first and foremost, I wanted to get my degree," McCollum said. "The first thing I told my parents after I graduated from high school was that I was going to graduate from college in four years, and I'm going to do that."

McCollum, a preseason All-American, is back for his senior season and, if his performance Friday night was any indication, college basketball fans in Pittsburgh today and Tuesday are going to be in for a treat. McCollum poured in 36 points in Lehigh's 99-77 opening-night loss at Baylor.

At least 20 NBA scouts are scheduled to watch McCollum and Pitt freshman center Steven Adams tonight in the Preseason NIT at Petersen Events Center. Both players are currently projected to be first-round draft picks in the 2013 draft.

Lehigh will play Robert Morris the second game of a doubleheader after Pitt plays Fordham. The winners will advance to play Tuesday night for the right to advance to the semifinal round of the tournament next week at Madison Square Garden in New York.

"We've had a number of good players come through the Patriot League, but C.J's ability is at a different level." Reed said.

So unique that if McCollum is drafted in June he will become only the second Patriot League player to be drafted by an NBA team since the league was formed in 1986. Adonal Foyle of Colgate was the first and only -- to date -- in 1997.

There have been some instances when players decrease their value when they return to school rather than turn pro, but McCollum never wavered in his decision.

"He wasn't scared to come back because he believes in himself," Reed said. "I told him he could always come back to get his degree. But he wanted to come back. It was going to be a win-win for our program whether he came back or left early."

McCollum said he used to play with a chip on his shoulder because teams from major conferences passed on him, but he is well beyond that now. And he is completely at ease with his decision to put the NBA on hold.

McCollum is working to become even more attractive to NBA teams by working on his point guard skills. He said Reed will call more pick-and-roll plays for him this season in an effort to demonstrate to NBA scouts that he can play two positions at the next level.

"You have to believe in yourself and the amount of work you put in," McCollum said. "I'm definitely going to be prepared. If you prepare and put the time in before you go to sleep at night then that's all you can ask for. Scouts are going to see that I can make plays for myself and for others this year. That's going to help me."

McCollum's parents and other family members and friends will make the short drive from his hometown in Canton, Ohio, to watch the games. McCollum's parents were his inspiration to graduate from college. Errick McCollum had to go to work in a steel mill in Canton after graduating from high school because his father died at an early age, and he had to help support his family. He is in his 35th year at the same mill. McCollum's mother, Kathy Andrews, had a similar story. She could not graduate from college because her mother passed away and could no longer afford it.

C.J. thought back to their situations when he had to make his choice in the spring about the NBA.

"It goes back to core values," McCollum said. "I knew I would be set for life if I graduated from Lehigh even if basketball doesn't work out. I wanted to assure myself of that opportunity and enjoy the college experience for one more year."

McCollum, who averaged 20.9 points and 6.4 rebounds in his first three seasons at Lehigh, was a lightly recruited player in high school. He had seven other scholarship offers from Division I colleges -- he rattled them off in seconds -- but none from teams in major conferences. The knock on McCollum was that he was too small. He was a 6-foot-1 shooting guard, and typically schools from the bigger conferences look for guards with more size.

Reed was convinced that McCollum would be a good player in the Patriot League, but he also had some inside information that made him think McCollum could be an elite player. McCollum's brother had a late growth spurt and there was the possibility that C.J. would also have one.

C.J. did have a growth spurt, and by the time he played his first game at Lehigh, he was 6-3. Reed and his Mountain Hawks have owned the Patriot League since. McCollum became the first player in the history of the league to win rookie of the year and player of the year honors as a freshman in 2010 when he led the team to the NCAA tournament.

In March, the Mountain Hawks won the Patriot League again and became only the third team in the history of the league to win an NCAA tournament game when they beat Duke. Bucknell won games in 2005 and '06.

The Mountain Hawks are out to do it again, and Reed is hoping the early games against power conference foes helps his team come March. Only one other team in Patriot League history has won three titles in a four-year span. Holy Cross won three consecutive championships from 2001-03 under former Pitt coach Ralph Willard.

"Hopefully, we can continue to play at a high level," Reed said.

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Ray Fittipaldo: rfittipaldo@post-gazette.com and Twitter: @rayfitt1.


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