One player stars at an inner-city high school and the other at a school only 12 miles away.
They are scoring sensations as seniors and eventually show up on the college basketball landscape a few years later as two of the best point guards in Division I, helping their teams reach great heights, talking about a Final Four, but never forgetting their roots, talking fondly of their high school days when they averaged more than 30 points a game as seniors.
It all sounds like a tale of two schoolboy stars from, say, New York. Or maybe Chicago or Los Angeles.
But we’re talking about DeAndre Kane and T.J. McConnell.
Pittsburgh — and Western Pennsylvania — is football strong and not known for producing top Division I basketball players over the past few decades. That’s what makes the story of Kane and McConnell so unusual.
Kane played for old Schenley High School in the Pittsburgh City League and McConnell for Chartiers Valley in the WPIAL.
Now they are standout point guards for two of the best college teams and eagerly awaiting their first steps at the Big Dance. McConnell is a 6-foot-1 junior playing for Arizona, the No. 1 seed in the West Region in the NCAA tournament. The Wildcats’ first game is Friday against Weber State.
Kane, at 6 feet 4, is a senior playing for Iowa State, the No. 3 seed in the East Region. The Cyclones’ first NCAA game is Thursday against North Carolina Central.
“Pittsburgh does get a knock for not being able to produce many good players,” McConnell said. “But I think the way he and I are playing, maybe that kind of negates that comment.”
Although their paths have only crossed once when they played together in a summer-league game three years ago, Kane and McConnell are Pittsburgh proud, regularly ending their channel surfing when one or the other is on television.
“I try to watch those guys a lot,” Kane said. “McConnell’s a great player.”
Kane and McConnell have combined to make for a Pittsburgh story for the ages. The reality is that it has been nearly 50 years since two Pittsburgh-area players have gone on to be such highly acclaimed point guards on such highly ranked college teams.
In 1971, former WPIAL and City League players were key guards on a few of the top teams in Division I (point guard wasn’t such a “defined” position in those days). Then, the NCAA tournament was much smaller than the 68-team field of today. There were only 25 teams in the 1971 NCAA tournament and only conference champions were invited.
North Carolina lost in the ACC tournament championship, but went on to win the NIT title. Bethel Park’s Steve Previs led North Carolina in assists while Penn Hills’ George Karl also played guard for the Tar Heels and averaged 12.3 points for a team that finished ranked No. 13.
That same season, Ambridge’s Dick DeVenzio was Duke’s point guard and helped the Blue Devils to a 20-10 record and the semifinals of the NIT. He averaged almost four assists a game.
Also, Duquesne finished the 1971 season ranked No. 15 and lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Monaca’s Mickey Davis led the team in assists and averaged 19 points a game while Aliquippa guard Jarrett Durham averaged 18 for the Dukes.
Now there is Kane and McConnell, who were among 24 finalists for the Cousy Award, given to the top point guard in Division I. Kane helped Iowa State to the Big 12 Conference tournament championship this past weekend. He made first-team All-Big 12 and was a third-team All-American selection by a few publications. He is averaging 17 points, 6.7 rebounds and 5.8 assists.
McConnell was second-team All-Pacific-12 and named to the conference’s all-defensive team. He is averaging 8.5 points, 3.7 rebounds and 5.5 assists and leads the team in steals (60).
Kane grew up in the Hill District and McConnell in Collier. Both gained national attention after transferring colleges.
Both have ties to Duquesne University. McConnell played his first two years at Duquesne before leaving for Arizona and Kane made a verbal commitment to Duquesne before his senior year, but backed out.
Kane eventually attended a prep school for a year and signed with Marshall. After a redshirt year, he played three years at Marshall, leaving after the 2012-13 season. Kane, who is a graduate student at Iowa State, said it was a mutual parting from Marshall coach Tom Herrion.
“People have made it out that I got booted and that’s not how it was,” Kane said. “It was time. I had been there four years and my final year I thought I’d like to try and make a run, play better competition and maybe get some more exposure somewhere else.”
After leaving Marshall, Kane considered Pitt. But through someone who knew someone who knew someone else, he got in touch with Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg.
“Just looking at the style of offense at Pitt, and with me being back home and maybe having a lot of distractions from friends, I thought it would just be better to get away,” Kane said of his reasons for choosing Iowa State.
“I had no time to waste and no room for error. I wanted to focus on what’s best for me. … I didn’t know I would have this big of an impact. But when I was getting recruited, Coach said he needed a point guard and a veteran and he wanted to put the ball in my hands and have me be a leader.”
Kane admits to “mistakes” in his past, but said he has changed, partly because his father, Calvin, died a few years ago.
“I still like to goof around and still like having fun,” Kane said. “But it’s just more off-the-court things where I changed. In the past, it was just me being dumb and making dumb decisions. It’s just me growing up since my dad passed. I think I’ve matured in a lot of different areas.”
When McConnell decided to leave Duquesne after the 2011-12 season he favored Arizona, and one of the main reasons was coach Sean Miller, a former Pitt player. McConnell didn’t seriously look at Pitt because Duquesne officials told him it wouldn’t release him so he could go to Pitt. Before choosing Arizona, McConnell also visited Virginia.
“I don’t think many people expected our team or myself to be doing this well,” McConnell said of Arizona. “To be proving some people wrong feels good.
“Right now, honestly this is 100 percent of the reason why I went here. My dream was to play in the NCAA tournament and now it’s finally here. … To sit there on Selection Sunday with your team and then see your team name called, it’s like a dream come true.”
Kane said: “You want to ‘rep’ where you’re from. I know T.J. talks about it a lot. I think we’ve shown there is some good talent in Pittsburgh.”
Mike White: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1975 and Twitter @mwhiteburgh.