This is a guest post by Ronak Patel
Born and raised in Harlem, New York; Khalid McCaskill’s exposure to basketball came early.
“I’ve been a (New York) Knicks fan since I was young,” McCaskill said. “I loved watching Allan Houston and Latrell Sprewell in the 1999 NBA Finals. … Jamal Crawford and Marbury were my two favorite players growing up. I always had a passion for the game.”
A love of the game has taken McCaskill, now a junior swingman at Lehigh, crisscrossing the country to chase his dream of playing college basketball. After two seasons at national power UCLA, McCaskill — who lived in New York until he was age 14 — choose to transfer closer to home and his family, which still resides in the city.
“I come from a family that stresses academics,” said McCaskill, who’s majoring in economics. “Lehigh has good academic programs and is close proximity to home. I’m only 100 miles from New York, being able to have my parents, especially my mother come out to any games, it’s refreshing to be this close to home.”
McCaskill has dealt with a couple of ailments this season, a hip injury to begin the season and now a hamstring injury. Those injuries have limited McCaskill to only four games this season, though he did score nine points in his season debut in the Mountain Hawks’ 100-74 victory over Penn State Mont Alto in late November. Hawks coach Dr. Brett Reed is hopeful McCaskill can overcome the nagging injuries.
“He’s demonstrated versatility and one of the biggest things that he’s struggled with is just maintaining his health,” Reed said. “He was working his way into meaningful minutes for our program, but had a small setback as far as his health.”
McCaskill is fighting for playing time behind a talented group of guards and forwards. The wing positions have been manned by freshman guard Brandon Alston and senior Stefan Cvrkalj. Lehigh employs three talented guards in freshman guard Kahron Ross, sophomore Austin Price (11 ppg) and senior Corey Schaefer, who take up the bulk of the perimeter minutes.
Reed has been pleased with McCaskill’s integration into the program.
“His experience, his maturity and his overall positive personality have been a bonus for our program,” Reed said. “Khalid is a versatile basketball player who has as good feel for the game. He can step out and shoot the ball, he’s a very good passer and he’s been a very good teammate thus far.”
The Hawks are 7-8 overall and off to an 1-3 start in the rugged and competitive Patriot League.
“It’s been a roller coaster,” McCaskill said about the start to the season. “We started off 0 and 4 but had a little bit of growing pains. We have a young team and had a tough loss to Villanova to open the season. But things are looking up now, we are playing better.”
The team’s ability has been shown in a couple of impressive non-conference wins, a 86-74 victory over DePaul in Chicago, and a thrilling 84-81 triple-overtime win over Arizona St. out in Tempe. McCaskill noted it’s not about the name on front of the jersey but the determination of which you play with matters the most, and — after playing in the Pac-12 — he would know.
“One thing I tell people is confidence is a great equalizer,” McCaskill said. “There is not much difference between the high-level guys and mid-to-low major guys in terms of talent.
“It’s about confidence level. Guys at high-major level understanding their confidence levels and know they are good, then they perform accordingly; guys at the mid-major level are now using their skills on the court the same way and that confidence comes from understanding they can play with them as well.”
The confidence the team gained by playing — and winning — those difficult non-conference games should help the Mountain Hawks, who are led by a talented sophomore duo in center Tim Kempton (12.9 ppg, 8.2 rpg) and Price, win games in the Patriot League.
“We’re battle tested and our team is young,” McCaskill said. “When we played Villanova it was a tournament atmosphere and playing teams like them and Arizona St. will give us confidence in conference play.”
Lehigh has had an recent lineage of success the last several years, aided by former standout guard C.J. McCollum, who was a first round pick in the 2013 NBA Draft by the Portland Trail Blazers. McCollum led the No. 15 seed Mountain Hawks to a first round upset of No. 2 seed Duke in the 2012 NCAA Tournament by pouring in 30 points in the 75-70 victory.
McCaskill knows expectations have ramped up on campus with the success of the program, which has two appearances in the NCAAs and one in the College Basketball Invitational over the last five seasons under head coach Brett Reed.
“I think we have a lot of expectations here and I’m new to the program,” McCaskill said. “Fans are coming out and it’s great to see the prestige of the program in the community. … You learn about the culture of the program and how things operate day in and day out. It was important but it things that we do as a program day in and day out that will set the bar for us when we get to the actual games.”
While McCaskill was sitting out last season as a transfer, he sustained a hamstring injury that curtailed his practice time with the team. He worked on his game this offseason in New York and he’s packed plenty of muscle onto his frame since his college days began at UCLA. He’s up to 210 pounds, a far cry from the 174 pounds he checked in his first year with the Bruins.
“I worked on solidifying my jump shot,” McCaskill said. “I need to continue to get stronger and work on my conditioning.”
The New York native moved to the Boston area when he was 14 and attended Phillips Academy. After graduating from Phillips, McCaskill attended one year at Brewster Academy. It was there where he realized he was good enough to play at the college level.
“I didn’t realize until I got to Brewster,” McCaskill said of playing possibility at the next level. “I had a dream of playing in college and had a couple offers out of high school but when I went to Brewster my post grad year and started playing true basketball talent day in and day out, I then realized I could play at a higher level.”
McCaskill was recruited to UCLA by their assistant coach at the time, Scott Garson, who’s now the head coach at The College of Idaho. McCaskill redshirted during his first season with the Bruins.
“UCLA intrigued me because it’s obvious one of the legendary programs in basketball,” McCaskill said of UCLA. “It was a wonderful experience out there and I learned a lot from the players around me. But I wanted to be closer to home, so that’s why I left UCLA.”
McCaskill has come, in theory, full circle. He’s closer to home and playing at a school he’s happy at. He is biding his time to get minutes on the court, but knows when his name is called he won’t flinch.
“The coaching staff and players here are tremendous,” McCaskill said. “We have a lot of talent on this team and depth, so if I get into the games, I’ll try to make a positive impact.
After all, when you’re a basketball player from New York, you have to be thick skinned.
“It’s part of the city and part of fabric that comes with being from New York,” McCaskill said. “We have a tremendous pride in where I’m from and always operate with a chip on my shoulder because of it and I can say from my experience it helps me playing at this level.”