If you sit in the Zona Zoo at Arizona Stadium, it is ritual to stand and jingle your car keys moments before a kickoff. It is cool. It is the thing to do.
But if you are sitting in Section 35, away from the crowd, surrounded by empty end zone seats, it isn’t necessary to reach for your keys when Arizona takes a 31-6 lead over UTSA.
At precisely that moment, scanning the crowd with my binoculars, I saw UA junior point guard T.J. McConnell sitting with friends in Section 35. He stood, grabbed his keys, and began shaking them at eye-level. Those next to him then rose and did the same.
By the time the ball was kicked, all of those who remained near McConnell in Section 35 were standing, jingling their keys.
It was unofficially his first assist as a Wildcat.
On Wednesday, outfitted in jersey No. 4, eligible for the first time since he played for Duquesne on March 6, 2012, McConnell took the keys at Point Guard U.
“His style of play is such that he impacts the game on offense and defense,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said at the school’s annual media day session.
This is a guy who has already played 2,041 minutes in Division I basketball, a pass-first, shoot-to-kill point guard, the mention of whose name draws a semi-gasp from teammate Brandon Ashley.
“Oh, man,” Ashley said with a smile. “It’s honestly hard to describe T.J.’s game. He’s not a player you see every day. A lot of people compare him to (Ohio State’s nervy) Aaron Craft, and I agree with that.”
And then there was this tell-me-about-McConnell reaction from first-year UA forward Zach Peters:
“There’s no better guy to be leading a team than T.J. That’s what’s going to set us apart.
“Is he tenacious? Oh, my gosh, yes. His ability to move the ball and get after it is amazing. He’ll find people open in the corner that no one else even sees. He’s like John Stockton in that way. It’s just unreal.”
McConnell did not bite on repeated media day questions about his leadership abilities. Instead, he deferred to junior Nick Johnson, insisting that Johnson is the club’s vocal and visual leader.
These were the proper answers from any newcomer on Sept. 25. McConnell is clearly a hard nut to crack, an intense, don’t-try-to-separate-me-from-my-teammates ballplayer.
This is not Josiah Turner, unsure of what to say and befuddled by what is required of an Arizona point guard.
“I’m not worried about my minutes here,” said McConnell. “I’m worried about winning.”
The main reason McConnell required a two-year detour to mid-major (or a bit less) Duquesne is because he was about 140 pounds coming out of his Pittsburgh-area high school. He didn’t project as an everyday point guard. He is now closer to 190, full of fight, and, in an Arizona perspective, in the right place at the right time.
“I made the right decision to come here,” he said. “I’ve never looked back.”
As part of the high school class of 2010, McConnell was given a “NR” listing by MaxPreps.com, a CBS-powered website that has some clout. NR? Not-ranked.
Most of the top 50 guards from the Class of 2010 have already scattered, done with college hoops. Former UA recruiting targets Josh Selby and Doron Lamb are long gone.
Ex-Wildcat Daniel Bejarano, rated No. 40 by MaxPreps, is a sub at Colorado State. Tucson’s Terrell Stoglin, ranked No. 45, is on his second European team. Former ASU backcourt players Keala King, No. 62, and Corey Hawkins, No. 52, became ex-Sun Devils in a heartbeat.
As it turns out, Mc-
Connell is probably the
best college player of the bunch.
On Wednesday, Miller said that McConnell “has a gift,” not as a shooter or a passer or anything that’ll regularly get your picture in the paper, but mostly as an ears-back, full-out motivator and defensive specialist.
“It’s a mindset,” the coach said, “and it can become contagious.”
One day this summer, as McConnell was about to play golf with teammates at Dell Urich Golf Course, the starter, an employee who regulates play, told McConnell’s group they were dawdling, behind schedule, taking too long to get to the first tee.
I was nearby, watching.
McConnell walked swiftly to the tee, yanked a club from his bag and shouted, “Hey, guys, get over here. We’re on!”
Isn’t that the truth?