TUCSON, Ariz. — When asked to identify their classroom teacher’s pet, the Arizona Wildcats gave an almost unanimous answer.
And those who didn’t blurt out the name “T.J. McConnell” actually found Arizona’s point guard almost the opposite, something of a teacher’s target.
Freshman Stanley Johnson said McConnell is the guy coach Sean Miller rides the hardest, and UA assistant coach Damon Stoudamire says McConnell is held to the highest of standards.
Which, of course, makes perfect sense.
McConnell is a point guard. A veteran, savvy, fifth-year-senior point guard. At the school that is rebuilding its rep as Point Guard U, with McConnell and crafty freshman understudy Parker Jackson-Cartwright surrounded by a coaching staff of former point guards in Miller, Damon Stoudamire and Book Richardson.
So, McConnell is favored. He’s criticized. And everything in between.
McConnell had to be in the middle of it all. It was inevitable, at ‘Point Guard U.’
“They told me about the name, and it’s an honor to be a point guard here,” McConnell said. “I’m just trying to live up to the great names who have played here before. I’m just trying to kind of keep it going.”
Miller wouldn’t mind seeing a little more boastfulness than that — “sometimes he doesn’t exude confidence like we’d like him to,” Miller says — but this is a guy whose Twitter handle, after all, is @iPass4Zona. Not “@McMoney,” or “@TJBuckets” or anything like that.
Maybe, too, that deferential personality is a little more reflective of the pass-first mentality Miller has been seeking at the position.
Besides, it’s a little different now, that definition of Point Guard U.
While Arizona had strong point guards back in the 1970s with Eric Money and Russell Brown, the name really grew out of the Lute Olson era, when guys such as Steve Kerr, Damon Stoudamire, Mike Bibby and Jason Terry starred at the position in the ’80s and ’90s — then left for long and lucrative NBA careers.
But Olson’s guys were mostly scoring point guards, guys who could make teammates better and find their own shot, over and over. They were stars.
Now, under Miller, Point Guard U has a more traditional look. Like Miller, a willing passer at point guard for Pittsburgh in the late 80s and early 90s, the Wildcats have a consummate pass-first player in McConnell and a slippery yet similarly pass-oriented freshman in Jackson-Cartwright.
They both can make Arizona become Point Guard U again, in their own way.
“I think that it was a name that was given that was well-earned at the time,” says Stoudamire, who returned to his alma mater in 2013. “But it’s not fair to compare them to the past. Jason Terry, Mike and myself, you’re talking about a different level of guard.
“If you compare, you’re taking away and diminishing the things that [McConnell] does well. I think you have to appreciate each individual for who they are. And for this team right now, T.J. is the guy [Miller] wants in there, and he’s doing a great job.”
Praise, From Duquesne to UA
Even before McConnell started tearing up practices earlier this month, Miller made it clear how strongly he feels. At the team’s Oct. 3 media day, Miller talked about not only McConnell’s junior season, when he helped glue the Wildcats together with passes and selfless leadership, but also his sophomore year at Duquesne, when he was third-team all-Atlantic 10.
“He was an excellent basketball player before he even showed up here,” Miller said. “From an experience perspective, very few are more experienced than him and very few are more productive than he’s been the first three years of his career. I think he’s one of the best players who plays his position in the country.
“How tall he is, how long his arms are, how high he jumps, how much he shoots, that’s people’s opinion. But I know the impact he has for our team and I don’t know if there’s a more important player than him.”
Years of experience, and being the son of a respected high school basketball coach in Pennsylvania, help explain McConnell’s well-regarded on-court savvy.
But it also helps that he is surrounded every day in practice by a coaching staff that understands the fine details of the position.
Miller was a standout playmaker and shooter at Pittsburgh who also competed for Team USA in the 1991 World University Games.
Stoudamire was the 1996 NBA Rookie of the Year and earned $100 million during a 14-year NBA career as a dynamic scoring guard nicknamed “Mighty Mouse.”
On the lower-profile Division II level, the 5-foot-9-inch Richardson also made his mark. He was inducted this year into the Pittsburgh-Johnstown Hall of Fame after breaking the Mountain Cats’ career assist record and leading Division II in assists in 1996-97.
So, for McConnell, that’s a lot of brains to pick.
“As a point guard, I don’t think there’s anybody in the country that’s better at teaching that position than Sean Miller,” McConnell said. “He knows so much about the game, and he was one of the creative point guards of his time. Coach Stoudamire and Coach Book, they’ve been a great help to me, even Coach (Joe) Pasternack as well.”
But it’s not always an easy existence working under them. They know what excellence at the position is, and badly want McConnell to get there.
— TJ McConnell (@iPass4Zona) August 20, 2014
Different points of view
“He’s definitely held to higher standards,” Stoudamire said. “I’m gonna pick on him and nitpick everything because I played the position. But at the end of the day, T.J. and I have developed a bond, so that he knows I don’t have any bad intentions by what I say.”
Technically, Stoudamire is Arizona’s point guards coach, but UA coaches share responsibilities in all areas. So McConnell and Jackson-Cartwright also hear plenty from Miller and Richardson, too.
Each coach has something to offer.
“We were all different point guards,” Richardson said. “Sean was a little bit taller than we were. Damon was a much better scorer and much better player than I was. For me, it was toughness. I was a kid from New York City who always had to prove myself. I said, ‘I’m not going to let you bully me.'”
Richardson’s mindset, and the see-through-holes vision Stoudamire developed, have been impressed upon Jackson-Cartwright already.
The freshman from Los Angeles is listed at 5-10, and that’s bigger than he played while slipping through defenses as a point guard for the California Supreme — a SoCal travel team coached by none other than Miles Simon, a former UA star guard himself.
While Stoudamire says Jackson-Cartwright is a different player than he was, being more of a pass-first point guard, the two have an obvious bond in their size.
“We talk all the time,” Jackson-Cartwright said of Stoudamire. “Being small, he gives me a lot of tips how you got to maneuver around to be a great player. For smaller guys it’s a little harder, so we can’t do the normal things the bigger dudes are doing.”
Meanwhile, Richardson wants a chip on the freshman’s shoulder. Richardson is 5-9, and Jackson-Cartwright isn’t likely to be much bigger. Both know it.
“He has been this size forever. He has to adjust,” Richardson said. “He is a really nice guy, but he also has that nastiness to him because he’s always been that height. No one’s going to give him any credit. They’re going to exploit anything they can.”
“But if Parker maintains a chip on his shoulder and becomes that change-of-pace guy, he’ll be able to use his attributes in how we want to play.”
In other words, just when teams get used to the sound playmaking of the 6-1 McConnell, in slides Jackson-Cartwright at 5-10 under the defense.
“It’s fastball. Fastball. Fastball,” Richardson says, and, “oh, here’s a curveball.”
McConnell is the fastball. Not literally. He doesn’t have an exceptionally quick first step. But his mind moves fast, with the ability to see plays before they develop, to anticipate where a teammate should ideally be hit with a pass.
He’s one reason why junior center Kaleb Tarczewski’s shot attempts rose from 156 to 219 and his shooting percentage climbed from 53.8 percent to 58.4 percent between the big man’s freshman and sophomore seasons.
Taking care of the ball
The most obvious measure of McConnell’s impact last season was that he put up better than a 3-to-1 assist-turnover ratio, while chipping in 9.7 points a game on 45.5 percent shooting. McConnell also led the Wildcats in steals with 35.
“Last year, he had one of the great seasons a point guard’s ever had here when you consider his assist-to-turnover ratio,” Miller said, noting McConnell also made the Pac-12’s all-defensive team and lead a team that went 33-5.
But evidence is not just in the numbers. This fall, there’s also been this: through the first two weeks of full practices this month, no matter how UA coaches divvied up teams for scrimmage, the team that had McConnell always won.
Always. That even included the Red-Blue Game, in which McConnell’s Red team beat the Blue 53-46 on Oct. 18 at McKale Center.
“At his position, he has total command on defense, and on offense,” Miller said. Basketball “people come and watch us practice. They recognize how important a player he is to our team and how good he is.
“I can’t believe in him more, as a point guard or as a player.”
Of course. McConnell is the point guard. A sound, productive, experienced point guard.
At Point Guard U.
Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be?
“I believe we’re settling in” at the position, Miller said. “Having a pass-first point guard and having two of them — one that’s old, one that’s young — yes, I think we’ve reached a very, very important position. We’ve established a way of doing things there.”