A late bloomer who entered Pittsburgh's Chartiers Valley High at 5-foot-4 and left at 6 feet, T.J. McConnell didn't get a lot of long looks from college recruiters. But being small did have one big advantage: Opponents usually didn't notice him until after he had swiped the ball. "Even when I got bigger, it was easy for me to get in the passing lanes and get steals," says McConnell, now 6-1 and 195 pounds and a junior point guard for the Wildcats. In each of his two seasons at Duquesne, McConnell averaged 2.8 steals, which was third nationally in 2011-12. After sitting out a year as a transfer, he will be the chief thief and tone-setter for an Arizona defense that promises to be one of best in the country. "T.J. takes defense very, very seriously," says coach Sean Miller. "When your point guard is like that, it can be contagious."
McConnell is also the first reliable pass-first point guard Miller has had since he arrived in Tucson in 2009, as well as a threat from behind the arc: He made 43.2 percent of his threes two seasons ago. That fills a huge hole for the shooting-challenged Wildcats. "Our offense still needs to develop," says Miller, "but there are a lot of ways to score. We have guys who will thrive in transition, whether it's driving the basketball, getting second shots, getting fouled."
One such guy is five-star freshman forward Aaron Gordon, MVP of the 2013 McDonald's All-American game, whose ferocious dunks have drawn comparisons with Blake Griffin's and who grabbed a school-record 15.7 rebounds a game as a senior at San Jose's Archbishop Mitty High.
"Aaron is the best rebounder I have ever played with," says McConnell. "He is relentless on the boards, and he is relentless on defense. Everyone on this team works so hard, and that's what I love most about it. I love to win, too, and I think we have a great chance to do a lot of winning this year."
The Wildcats won't get much time to work out offensive kinks: The first five weeks of their schedule includes trips to San Diego State (Nov. 15); Michigan (Dec. 14), and possibly New York for the NIT championship round, where they could run into Duke (Nov. 27--29). Their first Pac-12 road game? UCLA (Jan. 9.)
Player to Watch: Aaron Gordon
In most other national recruiting classes, 6-9, 225-pound Aaron Gordon would be the undisputed prize: He's a freakishly athletic forward who works hard, loves defense and makes the players around him better. While his shots from the perimeter and the free throw line are works in progress -- his desire to improve on those fronts is one of the reasons he chose to play for Sean Miller, a great shooter in his day -- Gordon will have an immediate impact on the 'Cats defense, rebounding, entertainment value (his creatively emphatic dunks are worth Googling) and overall intensity. "Aaron has taken a big step forward in his shooting since this summer," says Miller. "But shooting is not what's going to make him a great player this year. Even without making a single three he can still be an excellent player for us. He has so many other assets."
Telling Number: 5
The number of high school All-Americans Sean Miller brought to Tucson in 2012 and 2013, as opposed to zero in his previous seven years as a head coach.
Q&A with Arizona Head Coach Sean Miller
SI.com: TJ McConnell is the first fellow Pittsburgh-bred point guard you've had the chance to coach. Do you see yourself in him at all, and does that shared background impact how you coach him?
Sean Miller: Every coach wants to have a special relationship with his point guard, they are an extension of you on the court. TJ being here a year ago was invaluable because he was at every practice, he was at every home game, he was around us not only this offseason but the previous offseason. Not only does he have a good relationship with me and my staff, our team knows him and he knows our team. There are probably some similarities: Like him, I was a high school coach's son. My dad taught me the game and was hard-nosed in his approach. No question TJ's father was the same. In terms of us both being from Pittsburgh, we both like the Steelers, but it probably stops there. It doesn't impact how I coach him.
SI.com: Does this team present any interesting coaching opportunities or challenges for you?
SM: We can be a very different type of team. For example: we could play three small guards, say TJ McConnell, Gabe York, and Nick Johnson, with two quick forwards, Aaron Gordon and Brandon Ashley. That team offensively is a much different team than one where Aaron, Brandon and Kaleb are playing with two guards. So we may have to play different ways in the half court depending on the combinations that we have on the floor. That's not as easy to do as it is to say. That's why I think our offense will evolve over the year. I hope our defense is good enough that we can continue to win while we're going through that.
SI.com: Does this team have the potential to execute your Pack-Line Defense better than any of your previous squads?
SM: I do believe we'll be rock solid in being able to execute that defense. A lot has been made of hand checking, officials calling that tighter. Maybe on a block charge it favors the offense over the defense. The foundation of our man-to-man is very help-oriented so the new rules [shouldn't hurt us.] It's not just one-on-one basketball where they are on an island all by themselves. We try to defend more as a group by providing a lot of help.