By Chuck Burton
College Sports Journal
PHILADELPHIA, PA. — Patriot League basketball in the 2011-2012 season has been defined by two star players and the teams built around them.
When the league issued the Player of the Year awards at the conclusion of this year’s regular season, it was a two horse race, closely won by junior Lehigh guard C.J. McCollum (who won the award two years ago) over junior Bucknell forward Mike Muscala (who nabbed it last year).
For anyone following this year, It’s fitting that this Wednesday, Lehigh will travel to Lewisburg, Pensylvania to play Bucknell for the right to win the Patriot League and represent the league in the NCAA tournament.
It’s been a epic player rivalry between two dominating basketball talents that, in many ways, echos a superstar college basketball rivalry more than 30 years ago: Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson.
"[McCollum] is not [just] a very good Patriot League player, he’s a very good player, period," American University head coach Jeff Jones said after watching his team get crushed under a Mountain Hawk steamroller this weekend in the Patriot League semifinals, 85-66, led by C.J.’s 27 points. “There's not a whole lot of players better than him in the country. “
Magic was as well known by his press conferences and his confidence in his abilites as his superstar play.
Against American, with a large, vocal Eagle contingent yelling at him after an American basket, McCollum showed a bit of his own Magic side when he faced away from the CBS Sports Network cameras, pretended to wipe his nose, looked at the red-white-and-blue clad fans, and pointed at the Stabler Arena scoreboard and Lehigh’s double-digit lead.
Like Magic, C.J. McCollum has had a season this year where he’s done it all from the guard position.
“We’ve seen an evolution of his game this year,” head coach Brett Reed said, “from someone who was a gifted and wonderful scorer last year, to one who shares the basketball and makes everyone around him better. Because of that, others have continued to excel because of the trust and confidence he puts in them. He is sharing the ball and making plays beyond scoring for our team.”
McCollum has distributed the ball a lot better this year, finding forward Gabe Knutson (11.8 ppg) and fellow guard Mackey McKnight (8.3 ppg) and made everyone around him better.
It's a bit of a similar story to Magic Johnson, who went to Michigan State because he was promised that he would be able to play point guard. C.J., too, frequently plays to point for the Mountain Hawks.
While the youthful-looking Dr. Reed would never be mistaken in the airport for former Spartan head basketball coach Jud Heathcoate, Lehigh’s pace seems similar to the up-tempo, fast-paced game that Heathcoate helped pioneer and drove the Spartans to the NCAA championship in 1979.
The links to Michigan State don't stop there.
Lehigh traveled this year to play a tough, physical game in East Lansing, MI, where the Mountain Hawks played Magic's alma mater extremely tough, leading Michigan State at halftime before getting worn down in the second half.
Against Magic’s alma mater, McCollum scored 19 points, 8 rebounds and notched 5 assists in a 90-81 defeat to the No. 19-ranked Spartans.
The Canton, Ohio native’s soft shot and uncanny shooting ability are immediately apparent after watching him play for a few minutes.
But while he easily leads the Mountain Hawks with 21.7 points per game, McCollum also — reminiscent of Magic — has a sixth sense on finding the basketball after missed shots, averaging 6.6 rebounds per game.
Last season, he notched a Magic-esque 31 point, 15-rebound effort against Colgate, which was the only such 30-15 effort by a guard until San Diego State’s Jamaal Franklin did it this February against Colorado State.
At home against American on Saturday, his versatility was on display in front of a whole host of NBA scouts, with a double-double (27 points, 10 rebounds) to go with 6 assists.
"When he came in, he was a scorer and in some ways protected by his seniors. With those guys, it was their team and C.J. was the guy that kind of made everything go, but when it was crunch time, those guys hit the tough shots," Jones said. "Last year, he took a step and it became his team. This year he physically got stronger and has a more polished game."
Jones is one of many coaches who has recognized how valuable McCollum is to the Mountain Hawks.
"He's the core of what they do. Everything starts with him, offensively and defensively. That's what teams do. Not only is he a great player, he makes everyone around him better."
The analogy isn’t perfect. While McCollum still delivers some pretty assists, many times he’s used his threat of shooting the ball to create some of those assist opportunities.
That shooting threat threat was in full display a few weeks ago, when Lehigh faced Bucknell, then undefeated in league play, and on their home court in Sojka Pavillion.
With the game tied at 53, it was — unsurprisingly — McCollum who found himself with the ball with 10 seconds left and Bucknell guard Cameron Ayers on him like glue.
With just about five seconds left, McCollum executed a perfect crossover dribble that flummoxed Ayers just long enough for the 6’3 to nestle a 3-point dagger with 1.2 seconds to play.
MUSCALA'S QUIET CONFIDENCE
If C.J. McCollum is Magic, the dazzling star guard of the Patriot League, Muscala is Bird, the more quiet, reserved center who simply brings his star power on the court with his size and incredible shooting ability.
While Muscala certainly never had a self-imposed “gag rule” that Bird adhered do in Indiana State’s undefeated regular season in 1979, he certainly was at a loss for words after the Bison’s crushing 79-52 semifinal win against Lafayette in the Patriot League semifinals.
“Um... yeah... we won,” Muscala said, after being asked about his rebounding in that game. “I really don’t care, I just take what the defense gives us.”
When Indiana State coasted through the Missouri Valley Conference schedule, Bird’s statements were similar.
“Yeh, I played good defense,” Bird said tersely, in one postseason press conference.
There’s plenty else to remind people of Bird’s play in Muscala, too, the tireless work under the glass with 8.8 boards per game, the surprisingly soft outside shot from distance, and the way he makes his teammates around him better.
A 6-11 athlete in the Patriot League is rare enough, never mind one that gets 16 points per game and has a killer perimeter shot.
Just ask Richmond, who, last year, got victimized by a turnaround buzzer beater last year by the Minnesota native to suffer a 62-61 defeat, reminiscent of the famous Christian Laettner game winner for Duke in the NCAA semifinals in 1992.
“Mike was very deserving of his Patriot League Player of the Year Award [last year],” Bison coach Dave Paulsen said before this season. “The thing I was most excited about was that he made such big strides in his rebounding, getting to the free-throw line and becoming more of a presence around the basket to complement his shooting skill."
Muscala's improvements stem directly from his work ethic.
"Mike has worked just as hard this off-season," Paulsen said. "His biggest challenge now, like with the rest of the team, is managing his own expectations. He can’t think he has to make every shot. If he comes up empty on one possession, he just has to move on to the next one. He’s such a competitor, that can be difficult for him.”
This season, as important as his scoring and rebounding, he has definitely expanded his “threat potential” of scoring and rebounding to open up opportunities for fellow forward Joe Willman (10.9 ppg) and guard Cameron Ayers (10.9 ppg) to devastate the opposition.
That hasn’t taken away much from him statistically, where he’s enjoyed 14 double-doubles this season, but it’s taken Bucknell from being simply a good team to becoming a great team.
One of those double-doubles came against Lehigh’s opponent in the semifinals, American, where Muscala managed to get a double-double against the Eagles with 21 points and 11 rebounds, despite leaving the game for a significant stretch to get stiches in his chin.
"This is the fourth time I've gotten stitches since I've been here, so I'm kind of used to it," Muscala told the Daily Item after that game. "It was weird coming back into the game and certainly something I don't want to do again."
Another one of those double-doubles came against Lehigh earlier in the year, where he notched 20 points and 12 boards in a 68-61 victory.
A Muscala 3-pointer helped fend off a late Lehigh run, and two Muscala free-throws were the final points in the seven-point road win at Stabler Arena.
"Muscala provides a very difficult match-up for our team," Lehigh head coach Brett Reed said in the run-up to this Wednesday's championship game. "He has the size and length that makes him a legitimate low-post threat, but also has a high overall skill level as a passer and perimeter shooter."
Against Lafayette in the Patriot League semifinals, Muscala may not have done a lot of talking, just a lot of producing.
A six-point surge from Muscala — including a pretty shot off the glass that nobody on the floor for Lafayette had a prayer to defend — really crushed the spirit of the Leopards after Lafayette's 14-point deficit suddenly became a 20-point crater that would be nearly impossible to climb out of.
The analogy isn't perfect: Muscala certainly didn’t look much like Bird with his elevation on the shot - with all of Bird’s many superlatives, elevation on his shots was certainly not one of them.
(As a matter of fact, Muscala looked a lot more like a fellow Minnesotan who was a teammate of Bird on the NBA’s Boston Celtics: Kevin McHale.)
But as it stood, his 18 points, 4 rebounds and 2 blocks reflected his Bird-like workmanlike performance and his Bird-like dominance in the Patriot League semifinal - just as McCollum dominated against American earlier Saturday afternoon.
There was no pointing to the scoreboard from Muscala — just a big victory, as he helped advance his team to the Patriot League finals.
While Paulsen and Reed would be the first to tell you that basketball is a team game, it’s difficult to look at the Patriot League final and see anything but a matchup of superstars.
McCollum and Muscala have made their teams better - and they both have their teams on the brink of qualification, again, for the NCAA tournament.
The only thing that’s for sure is that it’s going to be quite a show at Sojka Pavillion this Wednesday — one that, undoubtedly, will invoke memories for some of an NCAA final more than 30 years ago.
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