TUCSON, Ariz. — There were times on the McKale Center practice court last year when, according to chatter, the best player out there was the new kid from Duquesne, transfer T.J. McConnell.
He was poised beyond his years and had as much basketball savvy and IQ as any player on the court, right there with then-senior Solomon Hill. He knew time and circumstance, typical traits of a son of a basketball coach.
There was little doubt that McConnell, a 6-foot-1 junior from Pittsburgh, would be the point guard of Arizona’s near future.
“I wouldn’t say I was the best guy out there, but the scout team made me look good,” McConnell said at the team’s recent media day. “They were hitting shots. I was just trying to lead by example. I might not have been a vocal guy, but I’d go out and give 110 percent and worked hard, (and) people followed.”
Little has changed in a year — oh, except for McConnell getting even better on the court. Now, he’s Arizona’s pied piper with a basketball.
“I didn’t realize how a year would make a difference in my game and how much improvement I’d have in every aspect,” he said.’
Last year, as he sat out because of NCAA transfer rules, he learned Sean Miller’s system, watched senior Mark Lyons both save the team with game-winning shots and make some poor decisions with the ball and saw a team that had improved noticeably by the end of the season.
“It’s great to have had him as part of the program; we know what he can do,” Miller said. “Equally important is that he has great familiarity with not only his teammates but our system. He brings the element of experience.”
Where he’ll impact the team — let’s not forget that he’ll be the truest point guard Arizona has had since Jason Gardner a decade ago — is everywhere. He brings intensity at each end; for example, Arizona will be able to attack more in both the full-court and half-court because of McConnell’s tenacity and zeal for the game.
“He brings a blue-collar mentality,” said teammate and backcourt mate Nick Johnson. “He plays hard every single play.”
That’s among the things that make him a perfect fit at Point Guard U, Arizona’s nickname that originated in the late 1980s and gathered steam in the 1990s but has since lost some of its applicability.
McConnell should, among other things, be a flashback of sorts in that he’s a prototypical ball-distributing point guard. He said he’s long admired the playing style of former Utah Jazz great John Stockton and current Los Angeles Lakers star Steve Nash, both pass-first, shoot-second point guards.
He lives by the point guard credo: Make everyone else happy.
“As long as we get the win, I don’t care about the points,” he said. “… as long as I get the assists, because that means we will get a lot of points.”
McConnell said there may be a little misconception that he’s going to be “the guy” this season, as it’ll be everyone who contributes and everyone who should get credit for whatever success the Wildcats achieve.
“My teammates get left out of the mix because they make me look good, so they should get a lot of the credit,” he said.
There you go; another assist. Freshman forward Aaron Gordon, for one, said he’s been impressed with McConnell because of his vision and passing ability.
In fact, McConnell reminds many of someone more than 20 years ago: Sean Miller, a feisty, competitive player who made his teammates better at Pittsburgh just by being on the court.
“If I can be half the point guard he was,” McConnell said, “then I’m going to be a real happy guy.”