Unlikely Cinderella Lehigh savors historic win, but looks to Xavier
Lehigh's C.J. McCollum, coach Brett Reed immediately turned their focus to Xavier
McCollum had largely been an afterthought during recruiting despite showing skill
Lehigh avenged its tournament blowout to Kansas in Friday's stunning Duke upset
GREENSBORO, N.C. -- The clock had long since struck midnight and yet America's newest Cinderella darlings had not left the Dance. They had, however, left the ballroom, for the evening, at least. A little more than three hours after turning the NCAA tournament upside down, Lehigh's players and coaches retreated from the Greensboro Coliseum, the epicenter for one of the most stunning upsets in tourney history, to the relative calm of the Doubletree Hotel, where the two men most responsible for the Mountain Hawks' 75-70 shocker over Duke on Friday night were very much looking forward to their well-earned rewards.
For junior guard C.J. McCollum, that meant getting away at last from the first trappings of instant stardom -- the endless stream of text messages and Twitter mentions that he'd had to ignore anyway when his phone died -- and soaking in the win by soaking himself in an ice bath in his hotel room.
For non-stop head coach Brett Reed -- who once worked as an assistant coach and a teaching assistant all while taking a maximum course load toward his PhD -- it meant being able to savor victory by finally getting something to eat; "I tried eating the pizza they gave us after the game but I couldn't taste it," he said.
All the while, Lehigh's campus back in Bethlehem, Pa. was, said one player, "in a riot," and yet it is telling that the team's best player and its head coach were focusing not on the game just played, the legacy just achieved, but on the game ahead, and the moment yet to be seized.
Asked if he spent much time watching the highlights of his sterling 30-point performance that helped vanquish vaunted Duke, McCollum said, "No. We had another game to get ready for."
As hard as it may be to believe even two days later, Lehigh does, in fact, live on in the NCAA tournament. On Sunday, the Mountain Hawks will match up with South No. 10 seed Xavier for a spot in the Sweet 16 in Atlanta.
It is, in many ways, the first game of the rest of the life of a program that had previously been an afterthought in the sport but will forever be known, if nothing else, as the team that became one of only six No. 15 seeds ever to win a game in the NCAA tournament.
It is also the first game in the national spotlight for McCollum, a slithery 6-foot-3 guard whose performance against the Blue Devils drew comparisons to March darlings of yesteryear like Jimmer Fredette and Stephen Curry. Like those two, McCollum was an afterthought as a high school player. A late growth spurt -- he entered ninth grade in Canton, Ohio, at just 5-2 and was still only 5-11 at the start of his junior year -- kept him off most schools' radars, despite averaging 25 points per game as a junior and 29 as a senior.
"My dream school was North Carolina," said McCollum on Saturday. "I don't know if it was the [Michael] Jordan factor, but baby blue's a nice color, I liked the fan support and they always won."
Not only did the Tar Heels not pay him any attention, neither did more local powers like Ohio State, Cincinnati or even Xavier. McCollum picked Lehigh over other small schools like Bowling Green and St. Bonaventure but wasted no time making his mark. As a freshman, he was named Patriot League player of the year and led his team to the conference championship.
After a trying sophomore season in which Lehigh missed out on a return trip to the Big Dance despite McCollum finishing ninth in the nation with a 21.8 points per game average, McCollum was dissed again. This time it was the LeBron James Skills Academy, held just 10 minutes down the road from his hometown in Akron, that didn't find a spot for him among its roster of 30 invitees.
This season, McCollum again ranked among the nation's top scorers, averaging 21.9 points per game and winning his second Patriot League player of the year title. Still, he remained an unknown but he had plans to change all that. Before going out onto the court for the Duke game, McCollum spotted the Tar Heels walking off after their win over Vermont. "Tell your fans to stick around," McCollum said. "I'm about to put on a show."
"We were like, who is this guy?" said North Carolina's Harrison Barnes. "Then he went out and put on a show."
In 39 captivating minutes, McCollum scored 30 points and made almost all the key plays in Lehigh's upset of Duke, much to the delight of the Carolina fans who did, in fact, stick around to watch.
No one had a better seat than Reed, the fifth-year coach who, like most of his coaching colleagues, did not envision McCollum as a future star. "I saw value in a package that wasn't necessarily as glamorous as you might necessarily expect from a college player," said Reed. " I saw talent. I saw a feel for the game, a basketball IQ, and just a smoothness about him that I really valued."
Reed has a pretty decent IQ himself, possessing a PhD. from Wayne State in something called Instructional Technology, which he describes as "the most effective and efficient means of instruction."
It would be easy to guess that in basketball terms, that means simply "Pass it to C.J." but as he demonstrated against Duke, Dr. Reed has a scientist's brain and the low-key demeanor to match, suggesting he should be wearing a white lab coat, and not a suit and tie, on the sidelines. He and his staff coordinated an exceptional gameplan that took the Blue Devils out of their offensive sets before they even began and "Preparation is something we can control," said Reed, sitting in the empty locker room where the night before he had written the word "Believe" on the board before his team took the court. "If we spend the amount of time necessary there's a great deal of information that we can cull."
Reed has never been a stranger to preparation. He played college ball at Eckerd College and had his sights set on law school before deciding he wanted to be a coach like his father, Lynn, who won a junior college national championship at Oakland Community College. Because he didn't have his teaching certificate, he got a masters at Wayne State and when given an opportunity to pursue his PhD after winning a fellowship that covered much of the cost, he accepted.
Reed got his PhD in 2003, by which time he had landed at Lehigh as an assistant after previous stints on the staffs at UNC Greensboro and High Point. In August 2007, Reed was promoted to head coach. Three years later he had Lehigh back in the NCAA tournament.
That appearance ended with a blowout loss to Kansas. Friday's result was much more enjoyable for Reed and his team. After the madness had finally died down at the Coliseum, Reed returned to the team hotel a little after 1 a.m. He had planned on starting the film study for Xavier immediately, but even the not-so-mad scientist needed a little break, so he set a 7 a.m. meeting for his staff so they could get some rest. Instead, he shared an embrace with his assembled family and friends, including his father -- "He was really proud," said Reed -- and headed to his room with his wife, Kindra.
All he wanted was something to eat and a chance to take a shower but instead he and Kindra found themselves just talking, a rare moment of reflection for someone who, by his own admission, "has a hard time stepping back and really appreciating it."
Eventually though, he couldn't help but glance at the endless SportsCenter highlights and savor, for a moment, the triumph he had engineered. And what was this most analytical of coaches, this son of a coach, thinking? Perhaps of the plays he should have run but didn't, or of how to get his team to replicate that performance on Sunday. Nope.
"I was thinking," said Reed, "This is really cool."
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