Arizona’s Most Important Player: T.J. McConnell

Posted by Andrew Murawa on October 17th, 2014

There’s no argument that Arizona is the most talented team in the conference, and there are probably at least four players with NBA futures on this squad. Freshman forward Stanley Johnson is already projected as a lottery pick in next June’s NBA Draft and could step right in as the leading scorer for a national championship contender this season. In all likelihood, if it isn’t Johnson who leads the Wildcats in scoring, it will be sophomore Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, whom DraftExpress also sees as a first round pick after the season. Beyond those two stud wings, perhaps the biggest strength that Arizona has is in its power and size up front, as junior center Kaleb Tarczewski and power forward Brandon Ashley also seem to have the NBA in their sights sooner rather than later (both are projected as second round picks). And yet, while cases could easily be made for any of those four guys as Arizona’s most important player, the pick here is a senior whose chances to earn an NBA paycheck are considerably less clear.

"Senior Point Guard;" How Sweet That Sound (Lance King, Getty Images)

“Senior Point Guard;” How Sweet That Sound (Lance King, Getty Images)

The fact is that there are few phrases more magical in college basketball than “senior point guard.” It’s even better when you can modify that with other phrases, like “four-year starter” or “experienced veteran” or “rock-solid decision-maker.” On this embarrassment of riches that Sean Miller calls a basketball team, rock-solid decision-maker T.J. McConnell is in his fourth year starting at point at a major Division I college (his first two years of eligibility were spent at Duquesne). On last year’s Elite Eight squad, McConnell played the role of level-headed distributor, finding ways to get the ball to explosive talents like Nick Johnson, Aaron Gordon and some of the returnees mentioned in the first paragraph above. On an elite defensive team, McConnell didn’t always have the onus of checking the other team’s best backcourt player, but he still held his own among more naturally athletic talents.

The challenges that McConnell will face in his final season of eligibility will eclipse what he saw last season. Last year, Johnson was always available as a secondary ball-handler who could initiate the offense without missing a beat. Heck, by the end of the season, the Wildcats were very comfortable letting Gordon bring the ball up the court and initiating the offense himself. And clearly Miller had the luxury of letting Johnson handle the defensive assignments against elite backcourt offensive threats. Whenever a mistake did happen on the perimeter, there were numerous Wildcats ready to swoop in and clean up those miscues. This season? While no one should shed a tear for McConnell, he’ll at times find himself required to check guys like Oregon’s Joseph Young and UCLA’s Norman Powell and Washington’s Nigel Williams-Goss. The fact is that, at times, McConnell may share the floor with Jefferson, Johnson, Ashley and Tarczewski, leaving the senior as the only true guard on the floor. In fact, even when a guy like Gabe York or Kadeem Allen joins McConnell in the backcourt, it will primarily fall to him who will be charged with the ball-handling and tough defensive responsibilities.

But, again, “senior point guard.” The phrase conjures up images of clutch free throws and gutsy charges drawn and deftly dropped dimes in the lane and, heck, maybe even the occasional buzzer-beating game-winner. But even more importantly, what McConnell can bring to this team as the floor general and locker room leader is the wisdom of a guy who has seen a lot of basketball at this level over the past half-decade. If he can unite this Wildcats’ locker room that is sure to be a mixture of egos with pressing individual goals in addition to team goals and keep everybody happy with opportunities to remain involved, this particular “senior point guard” could be the difference between another Arizona Elite Eight disappointment and Miller’s first-ever Final Four team.

AMurawa (999 Posts)

Andrew Murawa Likes Basketball.

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