Lightly recruited McConnell, Kaminsky now stars on big stage

Arizona guard T.J. McConnell and Wisconsin center Frank Kaminsky lead their teams into Saturday's Elite Eight matchup.

 

In a matchup with multiple McDonald’s All-Americans and even more three-and-above-star recruits, two relatively lightly recruited high school prospects will lead Arizona and Wisconsin into the highly anticipated rematch of last year’s Elite Eight.

If and when Arizona point guard T.J. McConnell becomes a coach there is no doubt he will recruit a player like himself. Why not? He’s tough, a winner and determined to leave successful. And, oh yes, underrated and overlooked.

"If I saw a guy that played like me, I would jump on him quick," McConnell said on the eve of playing Wisconsin on Saturday for the right to play in next week’s Final Four. "I know what the feeling is to be overlooked. To give a guy like me a chance at this level, and know that he would excel, I’d definitely do that."

More teams need T.J. McConnells, don’t they? The same goes for Wisconsin 7-footer Frank Kaminsky, who similarly has led the Badgers to one game from its second consecutive Final Four.

McConnell, a Pittsburgh native, was recruited to Duquesne and Kaminsky to Wisconsin, give or take a couple of mid-majors. McConnell later transferred to Arizona.

"He was undervalued coming out of high school with that Pittsburgh accent?" Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan jokingly said. "Just because a bunch of quarterbacks came out of the area where he’s from? I don’t think he was undervalued. I’ve always thought he was a good player."

Nowadays, who doesn’t? Some thought he was worthy of the Pac-12 Conference Player of the Year.

For Wisconsin, Kaminsky was named a first team All-American and is a candidate for national Player of the Year. Here in the Elite Eight at Staples Center, the unheralded and unsung have arrived.

Elite Eight: Arizona vs. Wisconsin

"I can see how guys like T.J. and me can fly under the radar," Kaminsky said Friday. "People don’t know everything about us. They don’t know our personalities. They don’t know what we are willing to do to get better at basketball. We’re just two guys who wanted to work as hard as possible to make something of ourselves and have been able to do so."

Indeed.

Each surpassed expectations — if there were expectations at all. But Arizona guard Gabe York saw what McConnell was all about two years ago when McConnell had to sit out because of NCAA transfer rules.

"He was going so hard in practice and had this will to want to play well," York said.

How do elite programs miss on prospects like McConnell and Kaminsky?

"It’s just life," Ryan said. "Not everybody develops at the same stage. (Some) students in college do better than (they did) in high school.  It’s not that unusual … there are no mysteries. It’s just how hard they work."

Ryan said part of the problem is recruiting rating systems are "just so overrated." Players play, and in the case of McConnell and Kaminsky each has played well throughout their careers. No surprise both are seniors, too.

McConnell goes into Saturday’s game averaging 10.3 points per game and 6.3 assists per game. Kaminsky averages 18.4 points and 8.1 rebounds per game. Ryan said there are "no guarantees" those types of numbers or players will flourish.

"That’s what makes it fun doing what we do and working with young people," the Badgers coach said, "getting them and challenging them, taking them out of their comfort zones at times, and expanding their work ethic."

It’s why McConnell, in particular, has thrived. Arizona coach Sean Miller said McConnell is a tireless worker that became "the heart and soul" of the team.

"People look at me and say that kid can’t play or look at another kid (like him and say) he can’t play," McConnell said. "He’s a white guy that is not athletic. (But) I can hit an open shot (just) not all the time. It’s the eye test. They see a guy like me or other guys like me and say he’s not good enough."

McConnell saw it on the football field this season. He can relate to Arizona star linebacker Scooby Wright, who was a two-star prospect and lightly recruited. But Wright was an OKG — Our Kinda Guy to the football team — who turned into an All-American.

"I love that saying," McConnell said of OKG. "Scooby was overlooked and I don’t know why. He’s the best linebacker in college football. He kind of proved people wrong and that’s what I love about him."

McConnell is doing the same and that’s why Arizona fans have embraced him just as Wisconsin fans have embraced Kaminsky.

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