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Arizona’s Miller gets boost from Char Valley grad’s play |
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Arizona’s Miller gets boost from Char Valley grad’s play

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TUCSON, AZ - NOVEMBER 19: (R-L) T.J. McConnell #4 and Gabe York #1 of the Arizona Wildcats walk down court during the college basketball game against the UC Irvine Anteaters at McKale Center on November 19, 2014 in Tucson, Arizona. The Wildcats defeated the Anteaters 71-54. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

LAHAINA, Hawaii — Arizona coach Sean Miller welcomes the lofty expectations and resulting pressure his team faces as a favorite to advance to the Final Four and win the school’s first national championship since 1997.

“There are high expectations in our program — period,” said Miller, whose team was ranked No. 2 behind Kentucky in preseason polls. “It’s one of the reasons you want to come to Arizona.”

To meet those goals, Miller is requiring major leadership from a fellow Western Pennsylvania native, senior point guard T.J. McConnell, who attended Chartiers Valley and played two seasons at Duquesne before transferring to play college basketball in the desert.

McConnell started every game his first year at Arizona, averaging 8.4 points and 3.6 rebounds, and led the team in assists and steals. The Wildcats (33-5) lost to Wisconsin in the West Region final in a controversial finish.

“He’s grown an amazing amount,” said Miller, who, like McConnell, starred as a point guard — first at Blackhawk and later at Pitt. “Not only as a point guard, but, more importantly, as a leader and person who’s going to do great things.”

McConnell will be Arizona’s lone senior starter Monday against Missouri in the EA Sports Maui Invitational at the Lahaina Civic Center. After three games, McConnell again leads the Wildcats in assists and steals.

“T.J. had a tremendous season last year,” Miller, entering his sixth season at Arizona, said Sunday. “All the great guards who played in our program historically — his assist to turnovers, his assists, his steals — the things you rate great point guards, he’s among the best.”

A senior in a sport in which many top players leave school early for the NBA, McConnell is an anomaly who returned for his final year. Arizona’s two best players last season who had eligibility remaining — Aaron Gordon and Nick Johnson — were selected in the first and second round, respectively, leaving McConnell in charge.

“Recruiting for all of us is a lifeblood. It’s the only sport where the better you recruit, the better you have to do,” said Miller, who welcomes talented freshmen Stanley Johnson, Parker Jackson-Cartwright, Dusan Ristic and Craig Victor. “Young players are leaving earlier. We’ve had that happen a couple times.”

Miller said McConnell has a different motivation from his younger teammates who have no track record in college.

“Every kid dreams of playing in the (NCAA) tournament, and everybody dreams of playing in the Final Four,” Miller said. “T.J. was on the court last year when we lost a great game in overtime to Wisconsin. He was also right there on the threshold of being in the Final Four, and sometimes that can make you hungrier.”

John Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at [email protected].

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