LAHAINA, Hawaii — Sporting a new-look goatee and matching upbeat personality, a more self-assured T.J. McConnell couldn’t wait to answer the question.
The former Chartiers Valley and Duquesne basketball star learned forward in his seat at a news conference following Arizona’s win over Kansas State at the EA Sports Maui Invitational and spoke with conviction about his past, present and future.
Yes, he loved his formative years in Pittsburgh and how those memories and moments shaped him as a player and person.
But it was time to move on.
He’s at a better place now, McConnell believes, and he wouldn’t change a thing.
“I thank them for giving me my start,” McConnell, a senior point guard, said about his two years at Duquesne, where he ranked nationally in steals and assists.
“But I’ve been watching this tournament since I was 5 years old. To be playing in it with coach (Sean) Miller, who I’ve been growing up and hearing about in Pittsburgh and the fans where we play in front of every night, words can’t describe how thankful I am for Coach Miller and all these fans for the opportunity to play here. That’s why I play so hard every night; because there are many people that want to be where I’m at, and I wouldn‘t give it up for anything.”
McConnell traded playing college basketball at home in front of friends and family for the opportunity to compete for a national championship at Arizona. His father, Tim, is the basketball coach at Chartiers Valley, where the son learned the game from his father.
His aunt, Suzie McConnell-Serio, is the women’s basketball coach at Pitt, where another aunt, Kathy McConnell-Miller, is the associate coach.
That said, Arizona is Arizona. Coached by former Pitt and Blackhawk star Miller, the Wildcats are ranked No. 2, behind Kentucky, following a season in which they advanced to the Elite Eight in McConnell’s first year.
“We came in as the number two team in the nation,” McConnell said. “My job is to keep everyone level-headed. That ranking doesn’t matter until the end of March, early April. Pretty much my job is to show how hard I’m working on defense and get us into our offense. Make sure things run smoothly for the team. My teammates do a great job of making shots when I give it to them. It’s a team effort leadership-wise, but I do the best I can.”
“At the end of the day, it’s all about winning games,” said freshman Stanley Johnson, one of the nation’s top recruits whose big plays down the stretch keyed Arizona’s win over Kansas State.
“When I went back in the game, it was time to rebound and get it to our leader, T.J., and have him orchestrate stuff.”
As the team’s only senior starter, McConnell saw his role become magnified with the losses of Aaron Gordon and Nick Johnson, who departed early for the NBA.
When discussing Gordon, the No. 4 overall pick, McConnell said he makes sure Johnson, the new kid on the block, feels comfortable as Gordon’s replacement.
“You can’t replace a guy like Aaron Gordon, what he does on the court,” McConnell said. “But the guy next to me (Johnson), we brought him in and he’s doing as good a job as anybody in the country. … We have to move on. It’s a new team.”
But it’s the same old McConnell, a pass-first point guard who can dominate the action despite averaging fewer than 10 points per game.
Sometimes McConnell, a career 47.8 shooter who’s struggling with his outside shot, is too unselfish.
“He doesn’t necessarily have to shoot the ball to play well,” Miller said. “But he’s really become mental at this point shooting the basketball, and making too much of it. He just has to relax, take the shots that present themselves. I have more confidence in him than maybe any player on our team from three. We’ve all been there before as shooters, where it just doesn’t feel right.”
Miller also was an excellent shooting, team-first point guard at Pitt who’s passing along those same traits to his fellow Western Pennsylvania native. Additionally, assistant coach Damon Stoudamire was a star point guard at Arizona and NBA Rookie of the Year in 1995-96 who racked up 5,371 career assists.
“T.J., in my opinion, is our team’s heart and soul,” said Miller, who ranks second at Pitt in career assists. “You can’t define his game by points. You have to define his game by leadership and playmaking.”
John Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at email@example.com.