T.J. McConnell thrives at point guard for Arizona

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TUCSON, Ariz. -- Before his sophomore year at Chartiers Valley High School, T.J. McConnell was offered a basketball scholarship to Duquesne University by its head coach, Ron Everhart. At the time, people thought Everhart was rash, almost crazy, for offering McConnell a scholarship so soon.

McConnell was a smallish point guard, almost too small, even for high school. And he wasn't a prolific scorer, either. But, after two seasons at Duquesne in which he was clearly the best player, offensively and defensively, McConnell proved what Everhart knew all along: He was good. Too good, actually.

"I just kind of said to myself that I want to challenge myself at a higher level, I want to try to play at a bigger school," McConnell said. "That's nothing against Duquesne. They obviously did so many things for me and I was appreciative of that. But I just wanted to transfer."

That realization struck McConnell while he was sitting at Consol Energy Center, across the street from the Duquesne campus, watching an NCAA regional tournament game between Ohio State and Gonzaga in March 2012.

It was shortly after Duquesne finished the season with a 16-15 record, 7-9 in the Atlantic 10 -- the 35th year in a row the Dukes failed to make the NCAA tournament.

"We were watching Ohio State play and T.J. looks at me and says, 'Dad, this is what I want to do,' " said Tim McConnell, who coached his son at Chartiers Valley and is one of the most successful basketball coaches in WPIAL history. "He said, 'I don't want to pass up the opportunity. I think I can play at a higher level. I really want to give it a try.' I love coach Everhart and it broke my heart, but I had to do what my son wanted to do that was best for him."

McConnell wanted to go to a school that could make a deep run in the NCAA tournament, which is how he ended up at Arizona, a program that had been to the tournament 27 times in the previous 29 years. The Wildcats won the national championship in 1997.

Not only is McConnell guaranteed to go to the NCAA tournament in his first season in Arizona; he is one of the major reasons the Wildcats are 23-1 and the No. 2-ranked team in college basketball. On a team loaded with young talent and future NBA players, he is the missing piece that coach Sean Miller has been searching for to run his offense.

It might sound corny, but McConnell is truly living the dream he envisioned that day at Consol Energy Center.

"I sat there and said, 'I want to be able to do this,' and that's what kind of motivated me to transfer and come here," McConnell said.

This is not the first time Arizona has been introduced to McConnell. At the beginning of his sophomore season, on Nov. 9, 2011, Duquesne came to the McKale Center to play the 16th-ranked Wildcats. McConnell spent various points of the game guarding Arizona's star guard, Nick Johnson, with whom he now shares more than just a backcourt -- they are among seven teammates who live together in an off-campus duplex.

Duquesne made the game closer than anyone expected, losing, 67-59. And McConnell finished with nine points, six rebounds, four assists and three steals.

"I saw first-hand how good he was," Miller said.

Nobody, though, thought he was this good.

Johnson, a high-flying 6-foot-3 guard whose uncle is former Boston Celtics guard Dennis Johnson, leads the team in scoring with 15.9 points a game. Forward Aaron Gordon, a 6-foot-8 freshman, averages 11.8 points and eight rebounds and is expected to be an NBA lottery pick after the season. But it is McConnell, a pass-first, 6-foot-1 point guard, who fuels the attack.

When he's not bouncing off ball-screens, he's dishing out a team-best 132 assists and averaging 7.5 points. At the other end of the floor, his defensive instincts are the reason he leads the team with 43 steals and averages four rebounds. McConnell averages 30.9 minutes per game, second only to Johnson (31.7).

"I knew he would go out there and play," his dad, Tim, said. "Did I know he would have the impact he's had? I'd be a liar if I said yes. I didn't know he would have that kind of impact."

Said T.J.: "These guys make the shots, I just give them the ball. They make me look good by hitting the shots. I'm just here to get them the ball, set up the offense and make open shots."

The Wildcats began the season with a school-record 21 consecutive victories and appear to be a lock for the school's first Pac-12 Conference championship in three years. They are also on target for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and could even make it to Arlington, Texas in April as one of the Final Four teams, despite the season-ending foot injury to 6-foot-8 sophomore forward Brandon Ashley, another projected first-round NBA pick.

"In a lot of ways, I think Nick Johnson is the most outstanding player on the team, blessed with incredible talent who plays both ends of the floor," said Arizona State coach Herb Sendek, a Penn Hills native and Carnegie Mellon University graduate. "But T.J. is the glue to that team. He makes everybody better."

That is what Miller, the consummate pass-first point guard when he played at Pitt, was hoping when he landed McConnell.

"T.J. is kind of like a 2014 version of myself," Miller said. "The way T.J. plays in today's game, he would have played like me if he was back then and I'd probably be a lot like him if it was playing today. The one difference is, he's much better on defense than I ever was. He has these instincts and he has a competitive fire."

Miller and McConnell are very much alike, beyond their Western Pennsylvania roots. They each come from coaching families -- John Miller and Tim McConnell often went head-to-head in big games when Miller was the head coach for 35 years at Blackhawk and Riverside high schools -- and each has their own connection to star power.

While Miller once appeared on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson when he was 14, displaying his prowess to dribble three basketballs at once, McConnell's aunt, Suzie McConnell-Serio, won two Olympic medals, played in the WNBA and is the first-year women's coach at Pitt. His other aunt, Kathy, is Pitt's assistant coach.

"To have a point guard like him, he's a true coach on the floor and really a dream as a coach to have on your team," Miller said "He's the only player I know that can care less about anything other than winning. We have a lot of players on this team who are really unselfish guys, but T.J. is about that one thing, which makes you feel good."

Even though he is 2,000 miles from home, McConnell is not far away from Western Pennsylvania. In addition to Miller, his assistant coach is Emanuel "Book" Richardson, who played at Pitt-Johnstown. Arizona's athletic trainer is Justin Kokoskie, a 1996 West Allegheny High School graduate who received his sports medicine degree at Pitt and grew up just several miles from McConnell's home.

With all that, McConnell feels quite at home at Arizona.

"Once we make the [NCAA] tournament, I think that will be a goal of mine that I've accomplished because I always wanted to play in the tournament," McConnell said. "But we're trying to get a Pac-12 championship here and a national championship. We can't look ahead." No one wants that more than I do. I'm going to work very hard and I know we will, too."

Just the way he envisioned several years ago.

Gerry Dulac: gdulac@post-gazette.com; twitter: @gerrydulac.

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