Remember that Elite Eight stretch when Wildcats fans thought, ‘damn, baby, we’re back’? Think back to those lineups. There was Pac-12 player of the year Nick Johnson and Pac-12 Freshman of the year Aaron Gordon in 2013-2014. There was Pac-12 Freshman of the year Stanley Johnson in 2014-2015.
Arizona had four players drafted between the two teams, two in each year. Aaron Gordon and Nick Johnson were drafted in 2014 and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Stanley Johnson were drafted in 2015.
There is one glaring omission from both the lists of Pac-12 honors and NBA draft picks — one TJ McConnell.
Timothy John McConnell was born in Pittsburgh into a Pennsylvania high school basketball royal family. His dad, Tim, played college basketball at a small school before becoming one of the most successful coaches in Western Pennsylvania basketball history.
TJ’s dad plays an important role in this story because of how McConnell bonded with Sean Miller but also because of how McConnell conducted himself on the court.
McConnell started his college career at Duquesne, where he was named Atlantic 10 Freshman of the Year in 2011. In 2012, he was named to the All-Atlantic 10 conference third team and the conference’s All-Defensive team.
On the ninth of November in 2011, Duquesne traveled to Tucson to face Arizona in the 2k Sports Classic. Arizona won 67-59. McConnell played in all but three minutes of that game, scoring nine points with four assists, three steals and six rebounds. He only turned the ball over twice in 37 minutes. It was then that Sean Miller would discover possibly the most important player of his then young tenure at Arizona.
After sitting out a year due to transfer rules, McConnell made an immediate impact in Tucson. McConnell recorded six assists in his first game in an Arizona uniform, a 73-62 win over Cal Poly. Arizona would then go on to win their next 20 consecutive games. McConnell was third on that team with 5.4 win shares, according to College Basketball Reference. The only two players that McConnell trailed were drafted following that season. He led the team with 202 assists. Nick Johnson finished second on the team with just 107. Arizona would have won the national championship that year had Brandon Ashley not broken his foot.
The following year, McConnell was outright snubbed for Pac-12 Player of the Year. It wasn’t even close. Arizona never polled worse than tenth in the 2014-2015 season, and McConnell was the reason why. He led the team, again, in assists, this time with 238 on the season. No one else on the team had more than 63. He shot 82.9% from the free throw line. He was second on the team in points produced. Finally, he led the team in offensive win shares, defensive win shares, and overall win shares. Want to hear a stupid stat? McConnell assisted on nearly 40% of all field goals scored while he was on the floor. And he played a lot of minutes. He played 1,158 of Arizona’s 1,525 minutes, which averages out to a team leading 30.5 minutes per game. Ridiculous. No one else on the team played 1,100 minutes.
McConnell wasn’t just a leader of the team for both years he played at Arizona, he was the team. Those teams played with a defensive intensity only McConnell could embody. Those teams had incredibly high basketball IQs that only McConnell could lead.
McConnell has one of the only things that’s objectively hard to write about. TJ has it. It has no name. There’s no skill to quantify it. It’s just it. And TJ is absolutely made of the stuff.
Now, imagine that in the NBA — a scrappy, undersized point guard with a ridiculous motor and through-the-roof IQ. It seems like he should be playing in another era, when big men dominated the paint and passing was an art, not a burden.
But TJ can’t play in that era. No amount of processing the trust out of the process can devolve the NBA back to the time of John Stockton.
It was screamed from rooftops that TJ McConnell could be the Philadelphia 76ers saving grace. And he’s the reason they weren’t swept. Hey, TJ. Your it factor is showing. But it’s a shame that it took such a dire circumstance for the NBA media and fans to recognize his greatness. TJ wasn’t only underrated and underappreciated at Arizona, he’s being underappreciated in the NBA. He’s hit buzzer beaters. He nearly resurrected a team down 3-0. Hell, he wore his wedding suit to his exit interview. That alone is worthy of all the appreciation. All of it.
Maybe, once TJ has his 15 years of NBA service and is inducted to Arizona’s ring of honor in McKale will he finally get the respect and appreciation he deserves.