McConnell does it all in Wildcats' exhibition win

Published Oct. 28, 2013 11:43 p.m. EDT

TUCSON, Ariz. -- Sean Miller is entering his 10th season as a major college head coach. In that time, he says, he has never -- seriously, never -- had a point guard who's been as effective in practice as Arizona junior T.J. McConnell.

Yes, he's talking practice. Somewhere, Allen Iverson is rolling his eyes.

"No one has dominated the practice stats like T.J. has through the first 22 or 23 practices we've had," Miller said. "He's doing it every day."

He can now include an exhibition game, as McConnell had 12 points, three rebounds, eight assists, zero turnovers and three steals in 23 minutes in Arizona's 84-52 win over Augustana at McKale Center on Monday night.

The only negative (if you can really call it a negative): He missed a shot, finishing 5 for 6 from the floor.

"Watching him on offense, he's making his teammates better," Miller said. "He's doing it every day right now. You can see he's making his teammates better. And defensively, he can pressure the ball and steal it."

He did it all on a night when phenom Aaron Gordon didn't have it all, playing just four minutes in the second half before Miller revealed Gordon was suffering from a strained groin. Miller said the limitation on minutes was simply a precautionary measure. Gordon finished with seven points and five rebounds in 22 minutes.

It's not like Arizona needed him in the blowout. After being down 7-2 in the first 90 seconds, the Wildcats, behind McConnell, settled in and played the role of the unwelcoming host. Five Arizona players scored in double figures, with Nick Johnson and Gabe York tying for the team lead with 14 points apiece.

"Arizona is incredibly long and athletic," said Augustana coach Tom Billeter. "They have a very good presence at the point guard position. T.J. McConnell is a special player. We've come here three times in the past, and T.J. is the best point guard we've faced, especially from a defensive standpoint."

And he makes it look so effortless, even when he hasn't played in a game in almost two years (McConnell sat out last season after transferring from Duquesne due to NCAA transfer regulations).

"I know it's been a while, but it felt great to be back on the court," said McConnell. "I've been anxious. It's been a great experience."

The surrounding talent helps. Arizona's depth, Miller said, will be in the team's versatility. Players will be asked to play a variety of positions, giving Miller options of going tall with combinations of Kaleb Tarczewski, Brandon Ashley, Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson or small with combinations of McConnell, Johnson, York and Jordin Mayes -- or anywhere in between.

The one who might benefit most is McConnell, a pass-first point guard who makes mundane look cool.

"It just makes my life easier," McConnell said of Arizona's many options. "Having guys like them on the court is exciting."

Miller, a similar player when he was at Pittsburgh more than 20 years ago, knew what he was getting when McConnell decided to transfer to Arizona.

"He knows how to play the game," Miller said. "He takes what the defense gives. He always starts with a pass-first mentality, trying to get his teammates involved. He's clever. He understands time and score. And he makes the game easier for everybody."

Miller called him "contagious" and, just as importantly for a point guard, unselfish.

"Every team that has a point guard who passes it becomes contagious," Miller said. "Any team that has a point guard who doesn’t pass it becomes contagious. It's much easier for a team to improve on offense when everyone has the mindset of sharing the ball and playing together."

That mindset typically yields good shots, smart play and a good record. Temper the enthusiasm with exhibition caveats, but the future of giving -- Arizona had 21 assists on 29 baskets -- looks bright for the Wildcats.

"We have a lot of guys who are unselfish," Miller said. "One of the trademarks of this team is that we share the ball ... we have a number of good guys who can make good decisions. They are thinking pass; when you think pass, your offense grows and gets better and better."

Of course, there are things to work on, specifically rebounding and defense. Augustana ended the night even with Arizona with 39 rebounds and was able to get (and make) some shots Miller didn't like.

"Neither was as good as we want it to be," Miller said of his defense and rebound.

His point guard, however, was.

Arizona picked up a commitment from junior college standout Kadeem Allen on Monday.

A 6-foot-3 combo guard from Hutchinson Community College in Kansas, Allen was a junior college All-American last season after averaging 17.4 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.8 assists. He visited Tucson over the weekend before committing.

Allen will be part of Arizona's 2014 recruiting class, which also includes point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright out of Los Angeles and forward Craig Victory out of New Orleans.