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Basketball Guide 2014: In T.J. McConnell they trust

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Arizona point guard T.J. McConnell (4) cheers from the bench during during Arizona’s 78-55 win against Mount St. Mary’s in McKale Center on Friday. McConnell is the unquestioned leader of this year’s men’s basketball squad.

A few years ago, everyone couldn’t wait for the skinny transfer point guard from Duquesne to become eligible, not because he would lead the team in scoring or he would be the most talented guy on the court, but rather because he was exactly what Arizona men’s basketball head coach Sean Miller needed to take his team to the next level: a point guard who played just like Miller did in his Pittsburgh days.

The 2012-2013 team was led by seniors Solomon Hill, Kevin Parrom and Mark Lyons, as well as a roster full of talented youngsters like Nick Johnson, Brandon Ashley, Kaleb Tarczewski and Grant Jerrett. For those keeping count, that list holds three current NBA players (Hill, Johnson and Jerrett) and two future NBA players (Ashley and Tarczewski).

However, as a shoot-first starting point guard on a talented team, Lyons struggled to spread the ball around to all those options. It just wasn’t his game. Lyons averaged just 2.8 assists per game and had an awful assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.04. The Wildcats went 27-8 but couldn’t get over the hump with a trigger-happy point guard like Lyons leading the way. They could’ve used a pass-first guy to lead the team.

In reality, that guy was on the roster; he just couldn’t play yet.

Miller, a pass-first point guard himself, recruited a player close to his own heart to take over the point guard position from Lyons. T.J. McConnell, a Pittsburgh native, had to sit idly as fans clamored for his services. The most common statement about McConnell was “just wait until next year.” As it turned out, McConnell was well worth the wait.

With McConnell at the helm, the 2013-2014 team went 33-5 and was one bucket away from a Final Four berth, due in large part to having a pass-first point guard and a stifling defense. McConnell contributed in both regards, finishing the year 13th in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio at 3.01 and 86th in the nation in steals per game at 1.68.

The son of a coach, McConnell came to Arizona in large part because of his familiarity with Miller. It may be cliche to say a starting point guard is the extension of the coach on the floor, but with Miller and McConnell, that’s exactly the case.

“I believe that T.J. McConnell is an NBA player; I don’t really care what anybody else thinks,” Miller said. “I’ve watched him all four years. He’s been all-conference in the three years he’s played.”

Miller added that last season, McConnell had one of the better seasons for a point guard in program history.

“Last year, he had arguably one of the greatest seasons that a point guard has ever had here,” Miller said. “When you consider his assists-to-turnover ratio, he was all-conference, he was all-defensive team and his team was 33-5. Right now, I think he’s one of the most experienced players that’s playing the game, and at his position, he has total command on defense and on offense.”

This season, McConnell will take on the primary leadership role that was vacated once Johnson declared for the NBA draft. Not only is he perfectly suited for the role, but he also has the unquestioned backing of his head coach.

“I can’t believe in a point guard more than I believe in him,” Miller said.

For an Arizona team looking to bring home the second National Championship in program history, in T.J. they trust.

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Follow Roberto Payne on Twitter.

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