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September 27, 2013

Miller, Wildcats gush over pass-first PG McConnell

T.J. McConnell had one showcase in an Arizona uniform last year - and it did not even count.

McConnell, a transfer from Duquesne, was forced to sit out the 2012-13 season, per NCAA rules. He was not allowed to play or travel with the team, but he did get to participate in last year's Red-Blue Game.

Practice days then became his game days, and it was not always easy to accept. Later, he realized that it "only helped."

"It was tough, but I knew in the long run it would only benefit me," McConnell told GOAZCATS.com Wednesday at media day. "I just tried to look at everything positively. That made the year go by quicker."

His only other appearance at McKale Center - and one only few probably remember too much about - was during the 2011-12 campaign. McConnell and Duquesne lost, 67-59, and the point guard was limited to nine points on 4-of-12 shooting, six rebounds and four assists.

Prior to that game, UA head coach Sean Miller called McConnell "one of the best point guards in the country," and the two shared words after the contest.

Both from Pittsburgh, Pa., player and coach have a relationship that also extends to McConnell's father, Tim. When it came time to transfer in April 2012, the Wildcats were a "no-brainer."

"I hear about how good of a player he was and I'm trying to follow in his footsteps," McConnell said of Miller.

Now available to compete, the 6-1, 190-pounder was tabbed the top impact transfer in all of college basketball by ESPN - partly because UA has a number of weapons that could benefit from his pass-first style. Last season, Mark Lyons was thrust into the role but was more of a natural scorer.

Lyons' ex-teammates, including McConnell, said he did not get enough credit for his contributions. Sophomore forward Brandon Ashley said Lyons was most important taking big shots in big games.

But they also see where McConnell, a junior with two years of eligibility remaining, could be an upgrade. His 2.5-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio in 2010-11 was the sixth-best for a freshman in NCAA history.

"It will definitely be a different team this year, with the fact that we do have a pass-first point guard. It will be different, but it will be exciting, as well," Ashley said.

Added sophomore center Kaleb Tarczewski: "T.J. has a little bit different game. T.J. is more of a facilitator than a scorer. Obviously, T.J. can still score, but I think he really focuses on getting other people the ball. That's going to be great for everyone on our team."

The athleticism on the team also could be highlighted and maximized by McConnell's presence on the floor. Star freshman Aaron Gordon, a second-team preseason All-American pick by CBS Sports, considers himself to have fairly good court vision.

But McConnell's feel for the game is on another level, he said.

"He's amazing. I've never played with a point guard that good," Gordon said.

"He makes passes that I don't see; that's what's most impressive. He'll make a pass and I'm like, 'Woah, where did that come from?'

"I cannot wait, I cannot wait to play with T.J."

With a year in the system and numerous practices with the team, familiarity should not be an issue. Ashley said McConnell already looks "comfortable."

His biggest contribution, however, may be on the defensive end. With Duquesne, McConnell's 2.8 steals as a freshman ranked fourth in the country and he was an All-Atlantic-10 defensive team member the following season.

Nick Johnson, a standout defender in his own right, and McConnell's starting backcourt mate, called him "gritty" on that end of the floor. The praise around the country also includes comparisons to Ohio State point guard Aaron Craft.

In his first four seasons, Miller said that defending opposing point guards had been an issue. He does not expect that to be the case anymore.

"One of the things that we had a problem with in recent years - that I believe T.J. can solve - is his ability to defend," Miller said.

McConnell is itching to get back on the court in a game that matters. No more talking. Just throw the ball up and play.

Now, he is doing everything he can to contain his excitement until the Nov. 8 season opener against Cal Poly.

"I'm just trying to get our team ready and myself ready," McConnell said.

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Tracy McDannaldTracy McDannald
GOAZCATS.com Senior Editor

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