Arizona thrives with old-school McConnell at point

TUCSON, Ariz. — Arizona point guard T.J. McConnell might not have written the book on being a point guard, but he’s read it and now lives it. Actually, being the son of a basketball coach, he’s lived it for a long time.

He realized long ago that it’s not always about scoring points but assisting and instructing. It was dinner-table talk.

He must have passed the potatoes well, too.

The most important part of being a point guard, McConnell said, was “making sure everyone is on the same page. If we call a play and four people know it and the fifth doesn’t, it’s pretty much worthless.

“You have to know it as a point guard. Coach Miller has given me advice. You have to be aware at all times.”

That will certainly be the case on Thursday night in what Sean Miller calls one of the toughest games of the year for the sixth-ranked Wildcats. They’ll travel to San Diego to take on San Diego State (1-0), which has muscled in on Arizona’s claim as a West Coast power with eight consecutive seasons of 20-plus wins.

The Aztecs’ history against ranked opponents tells the story. They have won three consecutive games against top 25 teams and have 10 wins against ranked teams since January 2010. They’ve knocked off Arizona twice in Miller’s tenure, including a 63-46 rout in the Wildcats first trip to San Diego under Miller.

To prevent a recurrence, the Wildcats will need another smart, aware game from their quintessential point guard, exactly as they’ve gotten in their first two games of the season.

McConnell has given the Wildcats 14 assists and only four turnovers in his first two games running the offense, covering 59 minutes. He’s cerebral and heady. He’ll take substance over style.

Has anyone told him it’s 2013 and no one does that anymore?

“They are out there,” Miller said. “There may be not as many as there were at one time, but today a lot of guards think score and not pass.”

After all, Youtube highlights don’t feature passes … unless they are of the no-look variety.

McConnell has those, too, but he’s more basic than flashy.

“The coaches at Arizona should feel very lucky to have a guy like that,” said George Raveling, a longtime coach and now Nike executive. “He’s a rare gem.”

In Monday night’s victory over Long Beach State, he had six assists in the first half, and it had reporters scrambling to see what his career high was at Duquesne, where he played his first two years. (It’s 11.)

“I just try to play my game and do whatever it takes to win,” he said. “Scoring zero points and getting other people involved.”

Raveling says that mind-set is a product of McConnell’s environment.

“Most of the kids don’t come out of a teaching environment where they get the tools to do it,” he said. “And coaches (at the lower level) today are fast-tracking these kids from a learning standpoint where it’s not about skill and fundamentals.

“The game was taught differently than how it is now. Now, it’s more about entertainment than knowledge of the game and fundamentals. It’s more about dunking and stutter dribbling. Players are taught, unbeknownst to them, that entertainment is more important than fundamental knowledge.”

McConnell’s approach is decidedly old school.

 “There’s a lot of combo guards that have the ball these days and aren’t as much as a traditional point guard, but that’s what T.J. is,” Miller said. “He’s on a quest to get his teammates involved. He’s not thinking about scoring, although he can. And he’s trying to do it on both sides, defense and offense.

“People talk about managing the game as a college quarterback, but he thinks about managing the game as a college point guard.”

Miller said much of the balanced scoring Arizona has had to this point has come from McConnell’s ability to know time and circumstance, getting his teammates easy opportunities.

If Gabe York is hot, he’ll get it to him. If Aaron Gordon is on the fast break, it’ll be there for the dunk, and if Kaleb Tarczewski has an opening near the basket, McConnell will find a way to get it to him. It all happened Monday night.

Not all is perfect, of course. In what can only be described as a statistical oddity, McConnell is 0 for 5 from the free-throw line, after making 83.6 percent to years ago at Duquesne.

“I think that will play out through the course of the season,” Miller said. “He’s in a rut right now, and we would like him to get out of it because it’s something he does exceptionally well. … It can make our team a lot better as he becomes more consistent.”

McConnell said he feels the trouble at the line is “just mental at this point. It’ll come.”


San Diego State lost its top four scorers from a 23-11 team but adds 6-8 forward Josh Davis, a Tulane transfer who averaged more than 17 points and 10 rebounds a game. Forward Angelo Chol, who played two seasons at Arizona, is sitting out the year as a redshirt. … The Aztecs opened with a 77-41 rout of UC Riverside. … Arizona escaped with a 68-67 win over the Aztecs in last season’s Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii when Nick Johnson swatted away a last-second layup attempt Chase Tarpley.

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