Teammate Nick Johnson calls him “my little bulldog” now and, after three years of college and about 25 pounds of added muscle, Arizona Wildcats point guard T.J. McConnell looks the part.
But in high school, McConnell just looked little.
“Like the paper boy,” said his father, Tim.
As a high school freshman, in fact, T.J. was just about 5-foot-4-inches with maybe 110 pounds sticking to him, according to his father.
That made it easy for him to fool you.
Like the time Oakland Raiders quarterback Terrelle Pryor went face-to-face with the scrawny freshman during a high school game.
Pryor was two years older, then a two-sport star junior for Jeannette (Pa.) High School, who, over a few minutes’ span, watched McConnell steal the ball from him and hit two-three pointers.
McConnell did this sort of thing often.
“He was phenomenal,” said Tim, who coached his son at Chartiers Valley (Pa.) High School. “He just had that knack. You say ‘Look at this skinny little kid … then all of a sudden, ‘Boom.’ ”
Ron Everhart saw more than a skinny little kid, too. Then the coach at Duquesne, he offered McConnell a scholarship as a sophomore, just when nobody else was thinking that was a good idea.
“When Everhart offered T.J., he got some emails about it,” Tim said. “One of them said, ‘When did you start recruiting water boys?’ ”
Tim McConnell laughs about that email now, saying it further motivated his son, but even Tim wondered if T.J. should redshirt when he finally did arrive at Duquesne in 2010. After all, T.J. still had only 165 pounds on his 6-1 frame.
But Everhart couldn’t afford him to sit out, and it didn’t take long to see why.
McConnell was so good over two years at Duquesne that when he opted to transfer to a higher-level program after the 2011-12 season, it actually may have worked against Everhart. McConnell’s departure was seen as a final straw —or a final excuse — to justify firing Everhart just days after McConnell’s decision to leave.
Everhart, now an assistant coach at West Virginia, said through a spokesman that he respectfully declined to comment for this story. But there’s no doubt about the impact that McConnell had for his hometown school.
Over two seasons at Duquesne, McConnell had 177 steals, and was third nationally in average steals per game at 2.8, while posting a 2.1-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.
He also hit 50.9 percent of his field goal attempts and 43.2 percent of his three-point shots as a sophomore, being named a third-team all-Atlantic 10 pick and put on the A-10’s all-defense team, too.
The bloodlines suggested that all this could happen.
Like UA coach Sean Miller, whose father was a legendary coach at Blackhawk High School in Beaver Falls, Pa., McConnell comes from a well-known basketball family.
Not only is Tim McConnell one of the most successful coaches in Pennsylvania high school history, but also T.J.’s aunts and uncles compose a literal Who’s Who of Western Pennsylvania basketball.
One aunt, Suzie McConnell-Serio, is the head women’s coach at Pittsburgh, having been an All-American at Penn State who won an Olympic gold medal and played in the WNBA. Another aunt, Kathy McConnell-Miller, played in four NCAA tournaments with Virginia and coached at Tulsa and Colorado — and now has joined her sister as Pittsburgh’s associate head women’s coach.
Then there’s an uncle, Tom, who played at Davidson in the early 1980s and was the head coach at St. Francis (Pa.) for seven years in the 1990s. And another aunt, Maureen, who played at Pitt from 1989 to 1991, just when Miller happened to be playing for the men’s team.
It’s no wonder, then, that when McConnell put himself on college basketball’s free agent market in the spring of 2012, Miller quickly expressed interest.
Miller and Tim McConnell had known each other since childhood, performing ball-handling tricks together at the University of Pittsburgh games as members of the “Little Panthers” group.
While Sean Miller went into college coaching after his playing days with Pitt, Tim McConnell played ball at NAIA Waynesburg (Pa.) College, then settled on high school coaching, where his son used to do his own drills on the side during practices.
At age 6.
You could say T.J. absorbed some things.
“He knows how to play the game,” Miller said. “He takes what the defense gives. He always starts with a pass-first mentality, trying to get his teammates involved, and he’s clever. He can recognize defenses, understands time and score (situations), and makes the game easier for everybody.”
The timing of McConnell’s arrival was ideal for the Wildcats. Not only had Miller begun putting together powerhouse high school recruiting classes, needing a point guard to tie them all together, but also the Wildcats’ experimentation with their first pass-first point guard under Miller, Josiah Turner, had failed by the spring of 2012. Turner was suspended twice during his freshman season of 2011-12 and left Tucson in the spring of 2012 just after he was arrested on suspicion of extreme DUI.
UA needed a new point guard. McConnell needed a new home.
McConnell was a pass-first guy, one who could play defense, who appeared to carry no baggage and no obstructive ego.
His Twitter handle, after all, is “@iPass4Zona,” and he doesn’t flinch when asked about all the national hype pegging him as a huge difference-maker for the Wildcats this season.
“I don’t really feel a lot of pressure,” McConnell said. “But I think my teammates are the ones who are going to be making me look good. I think they should get credit.”
To those close to him, those aren’t just words.
“He is how he plays,” Johnson said. “He’s all about the team, a true point guard. He’s just worried about getting other people better.”
But all this isn’t to mean McConnell isn’t confident. He is. That’s the bulldog part in him.
“It’s ridiculous, his court vision,” guard Gabe York says. “We’ve all told him that, and he knows how great of a point guard he is.”
That mixture of confidence, basketball IQ and team-first play is exactly what Miller was looking for. So he landed McConnell in the spring of 2012 over Virginia, just as Turner was leaving, and then managed to get Xavier transfer Mark Lyons to fill the gap at point guard last season, when McConnell redshirted under NCAA transfer rules.
Now, with McConnell on the floor, the difference is obvious. Over Arizona’s first five games, McConnell has 34 assists to only 10 turnovers, and Miller credits him for making others better, finding teammates in the right spot at the right time.
He’s also a careful shooter. So far this season, he’s hitting field goals at a 47.6 percent rate while connecting on 3 of 6 three-point attempts, taking shots only when defenses dictate it. His only weakness is at the line, where he’s just 3 for 9, but Miller says he’s not worried about that. He knows McConnell hit 83.6 percent of his free throws as a sophomore at Duquesne.
Already, McConnell is making the Wildcats better. Miller says his pass-first mentality is “contagious” on the team, making it easier for everyone to improve when the concept of sharing the ball is primary.
“He cares a lot about managing the game like a college quarterback,” Miller said. “What you see is some of the balanced scoring we have and some of our players having big nights. He can give them some easy opportunities.”
For example, Miller said McConnell has shown a knack for throwing it high when he realizes center Kaleb Tarczewski is being fronted by defenders. And McConnell’s splashiest assist might be the lob he threw for an Aaron Gordon dunk to help seal UA’s Nov. 14 win at San Diego State, after he quickly realized Johnson was heavily guarded.
But there’s probably no better example of the McConnell Effect than with York, who went from not playing in most of UA’s games last season to averaging 11.6 points and shooting 52 percent from three-point range so far this season.
York credits McConnell for getting him wide open shots, and, well, he probably should.
In the first half of a game on Nov. 11 against Long Beach State, York hit 4 of 5 three-point attempts. McConnell assisted him on two of them, while totaling eight assists against just two turnovers during the game. Combining their efforts with an efficient frontcourt that night, UA won easily, 91-57.
“If someone has a night like Gabe had (against LBSU), as a point guard, you try to make an extra effort to get the ball to a guy like that,” McConnell said.
Simple, really. But it doesn’t always work like that with today’s college point guards.
Miller should know. He’s had three scoring-minded point guards in his four-plus years at UA: Nic Wise, MoMo Jones and Mark Lyons.
All won games with their shooting and often did so in the final seconds, with Lyons memorably pushing UA past Florida and San Diego State last season. But all of them also brought a different perspective at the position.
“Mark Lyons was terrific (for Arizona), but McConnell is better,” ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said earlier this month. “He’s a pass-first player who can bring the ball up and initiate the offense.”
Bilas is hardly the only national analyst talking about McConnell, who was also featured in Sports Illustrated’s Arizona season preview and pops up prominently in just about everybody’s analysis of the Wildcats this season.
There’s no fooling anyone now.
But that’s OK. Nothing on the inside has changed.
“The different thing is that now people are giving him that praise, but he’s never been like that,” Tim McConnell said. “The expectations are not different because his expectations are different than most peoples’ expectations. He’s always wanted to be the best. But he will never tell you what he can do.”
Like Pryor did, and like Arizona opponents are doing now, you just have to find out for yourself.