Intense McConnell makes his case as Arizona’s Mr. Indispensable

T.J. McConnell, as he often does, lets loose his emotions last Saturday in Arizona's win over Utah.

TUCSON, Ariz. — Arizona Wildcats coach Sean Miller has signed 11 top 50 recruits in the past four years.

They can all take a backseat to the unassuming transfer point guard from Duquesne.

Miller, after senior T.J. McConnell had a brilliant first half to kick-start a 69-51 rollover against eighth-ranked Utah on Saturday, said he could make the case that "no player we brought here in my time has been more instrumental to winning than him."

It’s an interesting debate. Who is the most indispensable Wildcat?

Arizona, which moved up to No. 7 in this week’s AP poll, sorely needs the scoring ability of freshman wing Stanley Johnson. It has nobody who can replicate the versatile one-on-one defensive skills of sophomore wing Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.

But you couldn’t go wrong by answering, "T.J. McConnell."

Take your pick of analogy. Miller says McConnell "drives the car." Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak calls him "the head of the snake."

McConnell has been showing his driving skills and his fangs more since the start of Pac-12 play. With clever penetration into the defense, a mid-range jumper and killer confidence, McConnell has made 29 of 51 shots in five league games while also averaging 4.8 assists and 4.4 rebounds. He is averaging 13.0 points in the span, second on the team to Johnson’s 14.8.

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He began to rescue Arizona against Utah after the Cats fell behind 10-2. He hit a couple of jumpers to ignite a comeback that basically never stopped. With 13 minutes to go in the game, McConnell, often working off screens and getting mismatches against 7-footer Jakob Poeltl, had 16 points on 8 of 9 shooting, with four assists and no turnovers. McConnell finished with those 16 points as Johnson took over the heavy scoring lifting from there.

"Coach Miller, he’s telling me to be aggressive, and I’m letting the game come to me," McConnell said. "We were a little stagnant on offense in the beginning, and I saw my opportunity to give us a little spark, and it worked out for us."

Opponents often dare McConnell to shoot and score. That was an effective strategy earlier in the season. Now it’s pick your poison. Give him the shot, he’ll make it. Get up on him, and he’ll be in his comfort zone, driving and finding open lanes for the dump-off down low or the kick-out for 3.

"He dialed it up to 10 last year," Pac-12 Networks analyst Matt Muehlebach said of McConnell’s effort level. "He’s like dialing it up to 11 now."

Muehlebach, a former Wildcats guard, knows a few things about the program’s history and reputation as Point Guard U. He ranks third in school history with a 2.2 assist-to-turnover ratio among players with at least 300 assists.

No. 1 on the list?

McConnell at 3.1.

McConnell doesn’t have a direct comp among Arizona’s point guard greats. Muehlebach draws on parts of three players — Steve Kerr’s assist-to-turnover ratio (2.64 for his career); Reggie Geary’s defense and propensity for steals; Jason Gardner’s bulldog mentality.

"He’s probably closest to a Reggie Geary, when Reggie played the point in his senior year," Muehlebach said. "They both didn’t shoot it great from 3, but stats-wise, they’re probably close, although T.J. isn’t above the rim like Reggie was."

Geary in 1995-96: 9.8 points, 7.0 assists, 3.6 rebounds and 2.0 steals per game.

McConnell this season: 9.1 points, 5.9 assists, 4.4 rebounds and 2.1 steals per game.

And then there’s the resemblance to all that Geary-like energy and intensity, that senior leadership. Whether it’s howls of joy, shoves in a teammate’s chest or an exhortation to "Shut up!" (as he directed to Stanley Johnson in a game in Maui), McConnell is at the emotional core of this team.

And that’s fine by Johnson. He has encouraged McConnell to be hard on him.

"He’s the heart and soul, and when his face gets red and he’s pumping his veins, that’s every day for him," Johnson said after the Utah game. "He wants to win every competition, he wants to win every game. He hates making mistakes, and he does it because he loves all of us the same. He’s a great teammate."

McConnell isn’t shooting great from 3-point range for the season (11 of 38, 28.9 percent), but he is 4 of 10 in Pac-12 games. He’ll look to continue his overall hot streak Thursday night at Stanford, which is 13-4 and has a conference player-of-the-year candidate in point guard Chasson Randle.

It will be another showcase for Arizona’s heart and soul. McConnell is 49-7 as UA’s starting point guard after sitting out a year following his transfer from Duquesne.

"The biggest thing with him is he’s a winner," Muehlebach said. "I remember hearing stories about him when he was a transfer. They said whatever team they put him on in the practice scrimmages, that team would win. And that is what they were excited about."

And so, the former 2-star recruit from Chartiers Valley High School in Bridgeville, Pa., leads arguably the best collection of talent ever assembled at Arizona. Each of McConnell’s teammates in the starting lineup — Johnson, Hollis-Jefferson, forward Brandon Ashley and center Kaleb Tarczewski — were national top 10 recruits, according to Scout.com.

Now all those touted Wildcats play a game of follow the bulldog.

"T.J. has great credibility among our team and coaching staff," Miller said.

"He might be our team’s hardest worker. He might be our team’s greatest competitor. He’s consistent in who he is every day. Win or lose, he’s always trying to practice the game hard. He’s trying to get better. He’s worried about winning and losing.

"When you do that, what you say means something."

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VIDEO: Sports Guys Matt Moreno, Anthony Gimino and Steve Rivera break down Arizona’s victory over Utah and look ahead to this week’s road trip to the Bay Area.