Gritty point guard T.J. McConnell has helped Arizona reach No. 1
When Wildcats coach Sean Miller breaks up fall Sunday practices at the McKale Center by announcing, "It's time to watch the greatest football team on the planet!" -- referring to the Steelers -- he elicits gusts of laughter from his players, most of whom hail from California and Arizona. But junior point guard T.J. McConnell gets it. He pads around the off-campus duplex he shares with six teammates in black-and-gold slippers. He knows the heft of a Primanti Brothers sandwich. He remembers the deep chill of a western Pennsylvania winter, and he is happy to exchange a congratulatory, "You can't beat this weather!" with his coach whenever the temperature differential between Pittsburgh and Tucson approaches 50°.
But the connection between the coach and the point guard of the nation's No. 1 team goes beyond mere Yinzship. In McConnell, Miller doesn't just have his first, true pass-first point guard in his five years at Arizona. He also has a less offensively dazzling but more defensively tenacious version of himself, a hoops junkie whose basketball upbringing is eerily familiar. Both Miller and McConnell come from prominent Pittsburgh-area basketball families, and both played for fathers who are high school coaching legends. Both are the firstborn (of three). Both are hard-nosed, intense, fiery and occasionally given to pranks.
"I see myself in T.J. in many ways," says Miller, 45, who starred at Blackhawk High in Beaver Falls before running point at Pitt from 1987-88 through '91-92, "but I think our greatest similarity is that he doesn't really care about scoring. I think he judges himself by how he plays the game as a true point guard: running the team, passing, playing defense, winning games."
There are several reasons that Arizona -- despite losing four key players from last year's 27-8 team -- was 18-0 through Sunday and is favored to hoist the NCAA championship trophy at the Final Four in Arlington, Texas, on April 7. Miller doubled down on his collection of towering McDonald's All-Americans, by adding 6' 9" Aaron Gordon and 6' 7" Rondae Hollis-Jefferson to a rotation that already included 6' 8" Brandon Ashley and 7-foot Kaleb Tarczewski. And 6' 3" junior guard Nick Johnson, a tireless ball hawk and acrobatic dunker who can score from anywhere, has blossomed into a player of the year candidate. But ask people in the Wildcats' program who their most important player is, and they'll all point to the 6' 1" Duquesne transfer with the severe buzz cut who was averaging just 7.4 points at week's end. "We all like to score, and T.J. gives us that opportunity," says Johnson. "He's willing to make everybody else happy, and we haven't really had that. We wouldn't be the same team without him."
Thanks to advances in hoop construction, McConnell will never make a pass that leads to a shattered backboard, as Miller did 26 years ago with a fast-break dish to Pitt forward Jerome Lane, whose destructive dunk inspired ESPN announcer Bill Raftery's famous "Send it in, Jerome!" call. But McConnell's uncanny accuracy with crosscourt passes has produced a string of breathtaking alley-oops. In the first half of a 79-75 win over UCLA on Jan. 9 he launched a lob from the left side of half-court that floated into the outstretched hands of Gordon as he flew up from the right baseline for a gorgeous reverse jam. Just as entertaining are the assists McConnell makes in impossibly tight spaces, as when he made a deep-in-the-paint delivery to Tarczewski around a Bruin's back later in that same game.
Even when he's setting up the offense, McConnell confounds opponents. "You never think he's as tall as he is, you never think he is as quick as he is, you never think he's as athletic as he is, until you have to defend him," says Wildcats assistant Emanuel (Book) Richardson. "You think, I'm going to pressure this guy because I don't think he can go by me. ... Oh, s---! He went by me. And when T.J. pressures the ball, opponents think, This little white guy, I can get by him. They start to do things they don't normally do. And suddenly the ball gets stolen or their shot gets blocked and a fast break has started. T.J. is that guy you underestimate."
With McConnell applying the ball pressure in Miller's pack-line defense, through Sunday the Cats ranked third in the nation in adjusted efficiency defense and second in effective field goal percentage (41.1%). And thanks in large part to McConnell's ability to get the ball to teammates where they can do something with it, 58.9% of the Cats' buckets were coming off assists, compared with 54.1% a year ago, when the point was run by not-quite-converted shooting guard Mark Lyons. All four players who are back in the seven-man rotation from last year have upped their scoring averages by at least 3.8 points, and none was shooting below 41% from the field. McConnell, meanwhile, was averaging 6.2 assists. No player in Miller's first four years in Tucson handed out more than 3.3 a game.
"I love point guards that pass and take care of the ball," says Miller. No surprise there: Miller averaged 5.8 assists and a 2.3 assist-to-turnover ratio, numbers that still rank second on Pitt's career lists. "T.J. is the perfect point guard for Arizona because in many ways he mirrors the player Sean was," says ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla, who was an assistant at Providence when Miller played at Pitt. "T.J.'s strengths magnify his teammates' strengths. He is what Arizona needed."
McConnell, whose Twitter handle is @ipass4zona, doesn't see himself as a savior, insisting that it's his super-gifted teammates who make him look good. He won't even accept glue-guy honors, passing those to Johnson, the go-to host for visiting recruits and the impetus behind the aforementioned duplex. Watching the Midwest Regional final between Louisville and Duke last March, Johnson was struck by the tearful reaction of the Cardinals players and coaches to Kevin Ware's broken leg. "They were so close that when their player went down, they wanted to win it for him," says Johnson. "I think that's why they won the title." In an attempt to create that kind of bond among the Wildcats, Johnson got six teammates to go in with him on renting the duplex, where the team gathers to play Xbox, watch movies and sample Tarczewski's steak dinners.
Until he had a breakout game of 19 points, including five threes, in a 73-53 win at USC on Jan. 12, McConnell hadn't looked to score often and hadn't shot the ball well. But scoring has never been what excites him the most. "My favorite thing," says McConnell, "is seeing the satisfaction on my teammates' faces when they make a shot."
In the tight basketball community of western Pennsylvania, where football dominates the sports scene, the Millers and McConnells couldn't help but cross paths. Before Miller's dad, John, retired from Blackhawk High in 2005 after 36 years, 657 wins and eight 3A titles at two high schools, he and McConnell's dad, Tim, who has 471 victories in 21 years as the coach at 3A Chartiers Valley in Bridgeville, clashed half a dozen times in regular-season games and district playoffs. "He won a few, I won a few," says Miller.
For all their success, neither coach is the most celebrated member of his family. Tim's sister Suzie McConnell-Serio played point guard at Penn State, won medals at two Olympics, played in the WNBA and is now the Pitt women's coach. Sean was a ballhandling prodigy who traveled the country performing in halftime shows and at shooting clinics conducted by his dad. At age nine Sean performed tricks alongside T.J.'s dad and Aunt Suzie at Pitt home games as members of the Little Panthers halftime squad. Sean's ability to dribble three balls at once landed him a cameo as a 10-year-old in the 1979 flick The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh. At 14 he was on the The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.
Miller enjoys talking about his time as a sideshow as much as he enjoys a Steelers loss to the Browns. But he does allow, "It was cool to be a Little Panther. It's ironic that 35 years later, the McConnells and I meet up again in the desert. Sometimes I think about that and laugh."
But the bond between Miller and McConnell goes deeper than family connections. "If you're from Pittsburgh, there are always people who doubt you," says Miller. "Who comes from [the Pittsburgh area]? Mike Ditka, Tony Dorsett, Joe Namath, Joe Montana. ... You're not supposed to be a basketball player when you're from Pittsburgh. No one from Pittsburgh can play! Look at you! You can't jump! Those basketball stereotypes are loud and clear. You start to play with a chip on your shoulder. I saw that in T.J. right away."
When the 6-foot Miller arrived at Pitt, "people knew he was this magical ball-handler," says Fraschilla. "No one knew how he would translate into playing in the Big East, which was basketball's version of the UFC back then."
In the fifth game of his freshman year Miller took charge of a team that included future first-round picks Lane and Charles Smith. He called the plays and gave halftime speeches in the locker room before the coaches came in, telling Smith what he needed to do in the post and reminding Lane to keep hounding the offensive glass, observations coach Paul Evans would later echo. "We were a really talented team, and Sean was one of the players who really sacrificed his game to help others," recalls former teammate Darelle Porter. Miller also did a few things at his teammates' expense. Before the 1988 Big East championship game, he intercepted a pizza intended for guard Jason Matthews and shared it with Porter, leaving the famished Matthews the crusts. (McConnell, as it happens, enjoys pouring salt in the sodas of unsuspecting teammates.)
Miller, the 1988 Big East freshman of the year, never led a team as far as the Sweet 16, despite a No. 2 seed in 1988; but he had a career free throw percentage of 88.5% and still ranks 18th on Pitt's alltime scoring list (1,282).
Whatever skepticism haunted Miller, who was, after all, a top 100 recruit, it was surely worse for McConnell. He had the family trait of uncanny vision -- even for things that were happening off the court. He would mark the movements of friends and family during the heat of games and scold them later, "I saw you bring popcorn back into the gym with four minutes to go in the fourth quarter. Why weren't you in the stands watching the game?" But he also inherited the McConnell stature. As a 5' 4", 95-pound freshman backup point guard for Chartiers Valley, he subbed in during a game against Jeanette High that took place on Duquesne's court. McConnell knocked down three shots from behind the arc and stole the ball off future Raiders quarterback Terrelle Pryor. Duquesne's coach at the time, Ron Everhart, was so impressed, he offered McConnell a scholarship the next summer, by which time T.J. had grown ... to 5' 6". "I thought Ron Everhart was crazy, to be honest with you," says Tim.
He wasn't alone. One fan wrote Everhart and asked him when he had started recruiting water boys. Fueled by the naysayers, McConnell took charge quickly in his first year with the Dukes: He averaged 10.8 points, 4.4 assists and 2.8 steals (third in the nation) and earned Atlantic 10 rookie of the year honors. His sophomore numbers were even better, but with a 16-15 record Duquesne missed the NCAAs for the 34th straight season. At the NCAA subregional in Pittsburgh that year, McConnell watched Aaron Craft, a guard he is sometimes compared with, lead Ohio State past Gonzaga into the Sweet 16. He decided he wanted to play at a higher level and announced he was transferring.
Miller didn't need his younger brother, Archie, the coach at Dayton, to tell him McConnell was worth pursuing. When Duquesne had played at Arizona in November 2011, "T.J. killed us," recalls Sean's wife, Amy. Arizona won 67-59 despite coughing up 20 turnovers, three of them steals by McConnell. "I remember Sean saying then, 'Man, I'd love to have a point guard like that," says Amy.
She reminds McConnell after every game how much her husband loves having him in Tucson. But it can be a tough love. If McConnell misses an assignment in practice, Miller might do a push-up to punish himself "for putting you in that situation, T.J." McConnell can be doing everything right, and Miller will still go after him. "He'll take him off the first team, and T.J. will start killing it," Gordon says. "T.J. takes that so personally."
Miller admits he is hard on McConnell. "To me, that's the button T.J. needs pushed once in a while," he says. "A reminder that no one believes in you, a reminder that you're better than everybody thinks you are." With each reminder McConnell doubles his effort to be "half the point guard Coach Miller was."
The doubters remain. John Miller, who along with his wife, Barbara, winters in Tucson, still hears it from people back home: Is T.J. really starting for Arizona? "I think T.J. is an even better fit at the high major level than he was at Duquesne," says Fraschilla. "He's got weapons now."
That's another parallel to Miller. "The more talent I had around me, the better player I was," says the coach, "because I passed."
As the Pac-12 season ramps up, McConnell's profile should rise, as long as he continues to make his teammates shine. But there's no one whose résumé he'd rather burnish than his fellow Pittsburgher. "I'll do anything I can to make Coach Miller look good and make him happy," says McConnell. "He's taken my game to a place I didn't know it could go."