By Andrew Kahn
Nick Johnson put up big points. Aaron Gordon showed why he is among the top freshmen in the country. But if you were watching Arizona closely during its NIT Season Tip-Off championship run, you saw why the Wildcats look much improved from last season: point guard T.J. McConnell.
McConnell began his college career at Duquesne in his home city of Pittsburgh. After two productive seasons, he elected to transfer to play at a higher level. He sat out last season during Arizona’s run to the Sweet 16 and is now the starting point guard for the No. 2 team in the country.
Last Friday at Madison Square Garden, McConnell recorded 10 points, eight assists, and six rebounds in 39 minutes to lead Arizona to a 72-66 win over Duke in the finals of the NIT Season Tip-Off. His contributions go beyond the box score, however.
Johnson, McConnell’s backcourt mate, said McConnell has made a “huge” difference for Arizona. “On defense, he has like a little bulldog mentality—he’s really aggressive. His leadership is huge for us.”
McConnell has a great command of the offense. He’s a pass-first player who can hit the open jumper (he shot 50 percent from the field and 43 percent from deep his sophomore year at Duquesne). He evokes comparisons to Ohio State’s Aaron Craft.
“He’s always in the right place,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “The only things he tries to do are run his team and get assists, and in today’s day and age, that’s rare.” McConnell had two big assists during Arizona’s second-half run that put Duke away: a nifty feed to a trailing Johnson for a three on a fast break and a 25-foot alley-oop lob.
It’s the little things he does that catch your eye, like hedging to help on the ball before shuffling back to his man, or pointing a young teammate to the right spot in the middle of an offensive set. He may not average double digit points like he did at Duquesne, but he’ll be a key player for a team capable of a Final Four run.
“It was tough to sit out last year but it definitely paid off for me,” McConnell said after the Duke game. “Just working on every aspect of my game, getting bigger in the weight room, and just getting familiar with the offense and building chemistry with the guys.”
Andrew Kahn is a sports contributor to CBS Local who also writes for Newsday and The Wall Street Journal. He writes about college basketball and other sports at AndrewJKahn.com. Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter at @AndrewKahn.