BETHLEHEM, Pa. - Just because you know something is coming doesn't make it any more fun to look at.
If there is such a thing as a melancholy standing ovation, that's what C.J. McCollum received from the appreciative Senior Day crowd at Lehigh as he hobbled his way - without crutches for the first time in weeks - to center court to meet his mother. McCollum has tried to keep a low profile the last couple of months
since breaking his foot, he's not a huge fan of the attention anyway, and he certainly doesn't want to become the focal point of a team that he's not even playing for anymore.
McCollum still had the smile we've seen throughout his career, but as the cheers stopped and the teams lined up for the national anthem, his hobbling made him the last one to get into the group, a slight frown forming as he couldn't get his cast to move much faster. Little things.
Lehigh (and McCollum) would probably be upset that I haven't gone this far and mention seniors Holden Greiner and Gabe Knutson, both of whom were obviously along honored Saturday (along with B.J. Bailey - who has a year of eligibility left if he chooses - and Cory Goodman), and have had illustrious careers with the Mountain Hawks, including the obvious, the upset of Duke in last year's NCAA Tournament.
The Mountain Hawks won nine of their next 10 after McCollum's injury, including winning at Bucknell, but came into Senior Day against Army with four Patriot League losses and a probable No. 3 seed, meaning a potential semifinal on the road against rival Lafayette, who has swept them, a feat that would have been considered preposterous in the pre-McCollum injury days.
Army is another team that would have been thought to be a pushover for Lehigh, but the Black Knights came in winners of five straight, and needing only one more victory to secure its first winning record since 1984-85.
The visitors grabbed an early lead, but - as they have in a few spots in the last few weeks - Lehigh showed spurts of being as good as they were last season. Point guard Mackey McKnight took over the proceedings, and Lehigh showed why it is one of the best shooting teams in the country, pushing its lead to 34-27 by halftime. After Gabe Knutson had softened Army up inside early in the second half, the Mountain Hawks appeared to bury them in a hail of #superhoops, Corey Schaefer coming off the bench to hit a pair and B.J. Bailey applying the dagger with 13 minutes left. Time out Zach Spiker and Army, trailing 53-37. Game over.
Or at least it used to be, back before Army had so much confidence in itself and Lehigh was thinking how far it might go in the NCAA Tournament. Senior Ella Ellis is one of the best players you've never heard of (and if you read this site regularly and therefore know how good he is, we thank you), and freshman Kyle Wilson, Kyle Toth, and Dylan Cox will be names Patriot League fans will become familiar with soon if they haven't already.
(The Lehigh student section had a pair of pretty good heckles for Ellis, first singing the chorus to Rihanna's "Umbrella"
, and then changing the famous "Stella!" shout from A Streetcar Named Desire
to "Ella!" every time he got the ball. Good, clean ingenuity there.)
Earlier in the season, Spiker limited everyone's minutes, but his rotation was a little shorter Saturday, with Wilson and Ellis playing 34 and 33 minutes, respectively, and it paid off. Army starting attacking the basket, and suddenly Lehigh couldn't stop them. Amazingly, six straight points by Wilson brought Army all the way back to a 63-63 tie with 4:30 remaining, stunning the Stabler Arena crowd.
Eventually, though, the veteran leadership of Lehigh paid dividends and a couple of big freshman turnovers by Army didn't allow them to close the upset. McKnight, Greiner, and Knutson all made big plays down the stretch, the biggest one being a Greiner steal and dunk with 1:20 left to push the Lehigh lead from two to four.
Leading 79-72 with time running out, Greiner - who finished with 24 points, 14 rebounds, five assists, and four steals - had another steal and a chance to add a huge explanation point to his Senior Day with an #omgdunx, but showed restraint and class by not going through with it and dribbling the clock out (he was actually fouled before time expired).
I didn't come here to bury the current Lehigh. They should beat Colgate in the Patriot League quarterfinals, could win at Lafayette in the semifinals, and have obviously already won at Bucknell's Sojka Pavilion the last two times they were there. There is also a slight chance that McCollum makes a glorious return for the final.
But watching McCollum hobble around and the final only a week away, that doesn't look lightly. Unfortunately, timing is an underrated factor in our lives that we don't like to think about or discuss, mostly because there's not a hell of a lot we can do about it. Had McCollum's injury happened in the preseason, he'd likely be as good as new by now. Had it happened even two weeks earlier, C.J. would have a fighting chance to be near 100 percent by the all-important Patriot League Tournament.
As the usher in my section said, "I know basketball is about more than one person, but without C.J., it's just not quite the same team. That's tough. We'll never know what they could have been if he was healthy the whole season. They're still really good, but they could have been great."
Fate, however, does what it wants, and it doesn't care for great basketball stories in March in this case. While basketball is a big part of anyone playing in Division I, it's likely that the seniors chose Lehigh for its academic prowess as well, even McCollum. A degree from Lehigh gives you a good start in dealing with the "real world" upon graduation.
As far as the less-important hoops, we don't know what will happen to Lehigh after this season. Brett Reed (Dr. Brett Reed to you) has proven himself a good coach, but may have his hands full next season without this year's seniors in an improving Patriot League.
The chances of him ever landing another player as successful as McCollum (who could have been a four-time Patriot League Player of the Year if it weren't for Mike Muscala at Bucknell and this injury) are probably very slim. The probability of Reed putting together a team that has a legitimate shot to compete with the best teams in the country and make an NCAA Tournament run? Probably even slimmer.
I hope they prove my doubts wrong, and we're talking about Lehigh in the Sweet 16 in a few weeks or in a few years or both.
When things are unexplainable, we often resort to the lowest common denominator, which in this case is clichés. So as Lehigh prepares for the Patriot League Tournament without C.J. McCollum, there's only one thing I can think to say.
It is what it is, I guess.