McConnell gets assist from Johnson in restoring Arizona's rep
Arizona's reputation as Point Guard U was waning. The steady stream of talent at the position that Hall of Fame coach Lute Olson once had flowing into the desert and included Damon Stoudamire, Mike Bibby, Jason Gardner and Mustafa Shakur had dried up. Since Shakur left after finishing third in the nation in assists at 6.9 per game in 2007, the Wildcats have been hunting for a true, pass-first point guard. No Arizona player has averaged more than 3.3 per game in the past four seasons. Perhaps not coincidentally, after making the NCAA tournament for 25 straight seasons, the Wildcats missed the Big Dance twice in those four years.
Sean Miller took over as head coach in 2009 and thought he'd found the perfect backcourt balance when he brought Nick Johnson and Josiah Turner to Tucson in 2011. He really only had half the solution. After Turner was asked to leave the program in 2012 for drug- and alcohol-related offenses, Miller turned to the transfer market to find the other half.
Although Johnson was the heir-apparent at point guard, Miller asked him to help recruit a replacement. And Johnson gladly agreed. "I love to win," he says. "I'll give up my shot, and I'll change positions -- I'll even come off the bench -- as long as I can help the team win."
Together, Johnson and Miller lured two point guards to Tucson in the spring of 2012. The first was an unheralded Duquesne sophomore named T.J. McConnell. The second, a month later, was Xavier's Mark Lyons. Lyons was the bigger name of the two, but he was recruited because he was a graduate student and able to play right away. He was a bridge to the real prize that Johnson and Miller knew they'd secured in McConnell, a 6-foot-1 sparkplug who'd finished third in the Atlantic-10 in assists that season.
"You could say that [forwards] Brandon [Ashley] or Aaron [Gordon] have been our biggest recruits over the past couple years," Johnson says, "but T.J. is the guy."
McConnell sat out last season as a red-shirt and watched as Lyons struggled to fit into a pass-first role. Though Lyons led the team in scoring at 15.6 per game, he averaged just 2.8 assists and the Wildcats' roller coaster season ended with a loss to Ohio State in the Sweet 16.
The time on the bench, however, proved beneficial for McConnell.
"Every coach wants to have a special relationship with his point guard, they are an extension of you on the court," Miller told Sports Illustrated this summer. "T.J. 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."
This season, McConnell is resuscitating Arizona's reputation as Point Guard U. He's a prolific passer who ranks ninth in the nation with 6.7 assists per game and has brought out the best in his teammates -- Johnson, Ashley and center Kaleb Tarczewski are averaging 5.1, 4.5, and 2.6 more points per game, respectively, than a season ago. The Wildcats are also undefeated, and will carry a 10-0 record and the No. 1 ranking into Saturdays' showdown at Michigan.
If you want to know what McConnell's game is about, look no farther than his Twitter handle: iPass4Zona. He's backing it up by averaging a blistering 3.35-to1.0 assist-to-turnover ratio.
McConnell would have never signed with Arizona if he hadn't first gotten an assist from Johnson. When McConnell made his official visit -- the same weekend as the 2012 Final Four -- Johnson hosted him at his apartment and showed him the nightlife around campus. He knew McConnell wanted to play in and make a run in the NCAA tournament and he told him, "Just look at the tools we have here."
More importantly, Johnson also eased some of the fears of McConnell, who was secretly was insecure about jumping from Duquesne to a much bigger program.
"I knew it would be a challenge," McConnell says. "I knew that people would doubt me. People have doubted me my whole life. But it was nice to have Nick believe in me."
McConnell, who had been weighing both Arizona and Virginia, decided to commit to the Wildcats on his flight home to Pittsburgh. He didn't make it public, however, for another five days, so every day Johnson would text him "You coming?" until McConnell announced that, yes, he would be a Wildcat.
It wasn't the first time Johnson had worked his recruiting magic. In fact, he has been almost as tireless as Miller to make sure that Arizona has the talent it needs to get the Wildcats to their first Final Four since 2001. He says he loves recruiting, and he had a hand in securing the commitments of McConnell, Ashley, Gordon and next season's blue-chip recruit, 6-foot-6 forward Stanley Johnson, by doing much of the same things he did with McConnell: phone calls, text messages and reminders of what those players would mean to Arizona.
In its signature win of the young season, Arizona took down Duke in Madison Square Garden on Nov. 29, with an impressive display of team basketball. The Wildcats notched 18 assists on 23 made field goals in the 72-66 victory, with McConnell dishing out eight assists against just two turnovers.
If that game proved that the 'Cats could beat elite opponents, it was their Dec. 7 contest against UNLV that showed what they can overcome. In a back-and-forth game with 18 lead changes and in which no advantage was greater than six points, McConnell gave Arizona its final lead on a 15-foot jumper with 3:10 left to play. Down the stretch he added two assists and made a free throw to help secure a 63-58 win that ensured the Wildcats would rise to No. 1 for the first time in 10 years.
"Honestly," McConnell says, "my teammates make it look easy. I give all the credit to them."
After all, if he had wanted to be the star of his team, he would have remained at Duquesne. But he wanted a shot at something more. In Arizona, the Wildcats only go as far at their point guards take them and they've never been to the Final Four without a star in the backcourt.
Together, McConnell and Johnson are aiming to point the Wildcats back to the promised land.