Lehigh University men's basketball coach Brett Reed pulled B.J. Bailey aside after star guard C.J. McCollum got hurt early this season.
"Don't try to be C.J.," the coach told him. "Just be you."
Bailey is not McCollum, a potential NBA first-round pick who was the top scorer in NCAA Division I when he broke a bone in his left foot Jan. 5.
But since taking McCollum's spot in the starting lineup, the Holy Spirit High School graduate has been good enough that the Mountain Hawks remain a contender to return to the NCAA tournament, where they shocked the basketball world last year by upsetting Duke as a No. 15 seed.
"Honestly, I think everyone was right to try to write us off," Bailey, the 2009 Press Boys Basketball Player of the Year, said in a phone interview Friday. "But us players, we knew what we could do."
Primarily known as a defensive stopper, Bailey had scored just three points all season before McCollum's injury. But since being inserted into the starting lineup Jan. 8, he has averaged 9.3 points per game.
Bailey's 18-point performance in a win over Bucknell on Jan. 23 was a coming-out party of sorts. It gave the Mountain Hawks five wins in a row since McCollum's injury, and it proved that they still could compete with the Patriot League's best team. Bailey followed that with double-digit scoring in each of his next four games.
"B.J. was very comfortable being a quality defender for us and almost a glue guy during C.J.'s time," Reed said in a phone interview Friday. "At times he would defer to being about the fourth or fifth option offensively for our team. And when C.J. got hurt, I personally felt that he could be more aggressive. I felt he could be more aggressive even during that time prior, but I think it resonated with him a little bit more to ultimately step up his scoring and his overall ability to create off the dribble as well."
Making Dad proud
The Mountain Hawks have had their struggles, too. They lost three games in a row near the end of February. Bailey missed the first of those losses with a sprained ankle and was still hobbled by the injury in the next few games, but he said he is getting closer to 100 percent.
The end of the losing streak came just in time for Bailey. His father, Bernard, was in attendance for last Wednesday's win over Navy. It was the first time that Bernard, who spent time in prison for drug-related crimes, had seen his son play since middle school. Bailey scored 17 points in the win.
"He's heard so much," Bailey said. "He's read so much in the papers with high school and the last year or so. I just didn't want to let him down."
Bailey said his father is taking classes at Atlantic Cape Community College and is close to graduating. Bernard also is engaged to be married.
"I want him to definitely say, 'I'm proud of him.' Because I am proud of him with everything he's overcome, and what he's doing with his life," Bailey said.
Bailey has overcome plenty himself. His mother died of complications from pneumonia in 2006. His older sister, Nichelle, took care of him until he graduated in 2009, at which point he moved in with the family of his former girlfriend, Sierra Baca, in Absecon.
Bailey suffered a series of concussions during his freshman season at Boston University and transferred to Lehigh. Before he ever played for the Mountain Hawks, though, he nearly drowned while bodysurfing in the ocean off Margate in June 2010.
Bailey left the team after that incident - he would have had to redshirt that season anyway under NCAA transfer rules - but came back last year. He played sparingly for most of the season but then became a key role player in the final month. He played 21 minutes in the first-round NCAA tournament win over Duke, marking just the sixth time a 15th seed beat a No. 2 seed.
Bailey says he is "getting there" mentally. He missed one game earlier this season for unspecified personal reasons, but he said he has a team of people at Lehigh who help him.
The 22-year-old has one season of eligibility left, but he said he has not decided whether to return. He is on track to graduate this spring with a degree in psychology.
If Bailey does return, Reed said he still could get even better.
"I think he definitely has all-league talent, without a doubt in my mind," the coach said.
Bailey won't decide on his future until this season is over. His focus for now is on winning the Patriot League tournament and earning the conference's automatic berth to the NCAA tournament.
McCollum might even return sometime during the Patriot League tournament, which starts Wednesday when third-seeded Lehigh (20-8 overall, 10-4 Patriot League) hosts sixth-seeded Colgate. Doctors gave McCollum a time frame of 8-10 weeks after the surgery - Reed said that has not changed - and the eight-week mark is today. Bailey said during his interview Friday that McCollum was behind him taking shots while wearing a boot on his foot.
With a healthy McCollum and an improved Bailey together in the backcourt, Lehigh could again be an NCAA tournament darling. Bailey said he would like to have that feeling agin.
"I haven't really fully relished what it felt like to beat Duke last year," he said. "It hasn't hit me just yet. (Thinking about it now) is making me want to try and remember exactly how that felt so that I can come to terms with that feeling - and perhaps do even better, get even further than that round of 32."
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