(Credit: Brent Hugo/Lehigh Athletics)
Bucknell coach Dave Paulsen and his Lafayette counterpart, Fran O’Hanlon, tried to interject a little levity to the annual Patriot League pre-season luncheon held in Bethlehem, Pa., in late October.
The target of their good-nature barbs was one of the three student-athletes in attendance — Lehigh’s All-American guard C.J. McCollum.
“I am probably speaking for all Patriot League coaches that all of us were overjoyed, C.J., that you decided to withdraw your name from the NBA draft and come back to school,” Paulsen said, with tongue firmly in cheek. “Alot of us were really excited to hear that.”
The senior from Canton, Ohio, wouldn’t bite, choosing instead to watch highlights from the 2011-12 Patriot League season on a nearby screen.
“Someone was talking to me earlier about being the longest-tenured coach in the league,” said O’Hanlon, entering his 18th season with the Leopards. “Well, C.J. McCollum is the longest tenured player. He has been here for 12 years, or so it seems.”
While the audience around him chuckled, McCollum sat stoically next to teammate, and fellow senior, Gabe Knutson. The message from the duo heading into the season is clear: the Mountain Hawks mean business.
After winning an unprecedented PL Player of the Year award as a freshman, McCollum’s sophomore year ended with a controversial 66-64 loss to Bucknell in the league semifinals.
The Bison went on to win the 2011 PL title and the automatic bid into the NCAA tournament as Mike Muscala walked away with POY honors.
McCollum and the Mountain Hawks wrested both back from Bucknell in March and are determined to make sure that the crown stays on South Mountain for one more year.
“There is no such thing as turns,” McCollum said.
Many rivalries exist in the competitive Patriot League, but as Lehigh and Bucknell have separated themselves from the pack in the last few seasons the 2-3 annual matchups have taken things to a new level.
“We are aware that there is a rivalry there,” Knutson said. “I have put alot of thought into it. Obviously, we won my freshman year, lost my sophomore year and won junior year. I think the winner this year is the one to take it all, because this is the senior year for all of us.”
McCollum and the Mountain Hawks face a big time opponent immediately, traveling to Baylor to face Drew’s team (Photo Credit: Baylor Marketing and Communications)
Before Coach Brett Reed’s squad can think about league rivals, the Mountain Hawks will have to navigate an independent schedule that starts with the top-20 Baylor Bears in Waco, Texas on Friday and also includes a possible meeting with Pittsburgh in the pre-season NIT, Fordham, North Texas and Virginia Commonwealth.
“I think it is very important for us to increase our strength of schedule, as far as travel, and make sure we are getting enough quality road games,” McCollum said. “It helps prepares us for conference play and the conference tournament.”
But after knocking off Duke in the 2011 NCAA tournament, Lehigh’s phones were not exactly ringing off the hook from teams seeking to add the veteran Mountain Hawks to the 2012-13 schedule.
“It was a unique challenge for us this year because the amount of respect that was gained for our program,” said Reed, in his sixth season as head coach. “We looked nationally for anything that made sense. We were open to most any possibility and were exploring every model to find additional opponents.”
“They just were not really available and not interested in playing us at this time. Although it is frustrating, I do take it as a compliment for our program.”
The schedule that was finally assembled includes two trips to Texas, which was as close as they could find in attempt to get Mackey McKnight a game near his New Orleans roots.
The second trip, to face North Texas, also will allow McCollum to lock horns with another potential NBA selection in the Mean Green’s Tony Mitchell.
The two players were among 20 invited to the exclusive LeBron James Skills Academy over the summer in Las Vegas.
“We did not want to go from December 8 to December 29 without a game,” said Reed, of the Mountain Hawks stretch exiting exam break. “That was a real possibility for us had we not found the opportunity to play North Texas. It also will give C.J. some additional visibility, as well.”
While McCollum’s tenure in the Patriot League may have felt like an eternity for rival coaches, for Reed the time that has elapsed since he arrived as a skinny freshman with a good shot has gone by quickly.
“It has been an absolute pleasure to coach him,” Reed said. “He has grown physically, but he has also grown with his leadership and other aspects of his game.”
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