McConnell restores Arizona’s ‘Point Guard U’ tradition
TUCSON, Ariz. — Jason Terry will be in town Thursday, and he is unquestionably one of the best players in Arizona history, plus he’s the Wildcat with the most prolific NBA career.
It will be his moment at halftime of the game against USC, as the athletic department retires his jersey in a ceremony that is sure to evoke the joy with which he played the game and perhaps see a return of his famed knee-high CATS socks.
It’s a good time to recall all that greatness, because for the first time in more than a decade, there actually is a continuation of the Point Guard U. tradition at Arizona.
This is T.J. McConnell’s moment.
No Arizona point guard in more than 30 years — not Steve Kerr, not Damon Stoudamire, not Mike Bibby, not Terry, not Jason Gardner — has finished the season with an average of six assists and an assist-to-turnover margin of 3-to-1.
McConnell is at 6.0 and 3.1.
"Court vision," said shooting guard and emergency back-up point guard Gabe York, when asked what one trait he would most like to take from McConnell’s game.
"It’s ridiculous. I don’t know how he sees some of the things that he sees. Off spin moves, he finds people who are standing behind him and he hits a perfect pass. It’s a gift."
But this is about more than just McConnell’s passing, ball control and game management.
McConnell is pesky on defense, ranking third in the conference in steals at 2.24 per game, and his offense — sorely needed to balance the UA scoring load and spread the court — fully arrived at the start of the Pac-12 season.
In 12 league games, he is averaging 12.3 points, shooting 56.5 percent from the field (65 of 115) and 47.6 percent from behind the arc (10 of 21) while being smartly selective with his shot. An early season defensive strategy against McConnell might have been "Make him shoot," but he has turned that into a winning Arizona approach with a deadly mid-range game.
Freshman Stanley Johnson is the team’s leading scorer and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is a defensive ace who will be a first-round pick. But this Arizona season is going to go down as the "T.J. McConnell season."
As a potential Pac-12 Player of the Year and a red-in-the-face leader, this is T.J.’s team.
"I think one of the characteristics he brings to our program is that he’s very humble," said Arizona coach Sean Miller.
"I think there is always that side of him because he’s been an underdog coming from Duquesne, not a high school All-American. Part of what has made him work so hard is, ‘Am I good enough? Do I deserve to be here? Do I deserve to be a point guard at Arizona? Am I that good?’ He always asks himself those questions, and I think that spurs on a tremendous work ethic and competitive fire.
"But I believe he crossed that threshold a while back in that he knows he can play the game, and that’s he’s one of the best guards that’s playing this season in college basketball. I think it’s that confidence that’s really allowed him to be an even better, more vocal leader than he once was.
"He’s playing excellent basketball right now."
So, welcome to the PGU club, T.J.
Ranking the best point guards in Arizona history is an exercise that almost always starts with the arrival of coach Lute Olson and way-under-the-radar recruit Steve Kerr for the 1983-84 season. Using this time period excludes Russell Brown, the school’s career assist leader who played in the final Fred Snowden years, finishing his career in 1981. Brown, by the way, is the last Wildcat to average at least six assists with a 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio in a season.
But when talking about the Point Guard U. years, the top five list, in some order, is nearly airtight.
Kerr was unparalleled as a shooter, and he had an assist-to-turnover ratio of 4.2 as a senior, when he remarkably averaged less than one turnover per game.
Stoudamire headed the advent of Olson’s prolific three-guard lineup that helped revolutionize college basketball.
Bibby directed Arizona to the 1997 national title as a freshman.
Terry was the key sixth man on that team and, as a senior, in 1999, earned national player of the year honors.
Gardner was a four-year starter, a bulldog and ironman who ranks high on many UA career lists. Gardner, like Stoudamire, was a three-time first-team All-Pac-10 player.
Is there room for McConnell?
Whether he’s considered on this level will be determined in the next several weeks, requiring at least a Final Four appearance and an extension of his hot play. Could happen. Given his all-around play — almost forgot to mention he has more defensive rebounds than center Kaleb Tarczewski and power forward Brandon Ashley — the real question might be "What can’t he do?"
For sure, he’s brought back Point Guard U.