McConnell watched Ohio State play Gonzaga in the Round of 32, with a particular focus on Buckeyes point guard Aaron Craft. McConnell envied the players on the court. He believed he belonged. He felt incomplete as a spectator. He turned to his father.
“I think I want to play at a higher level,” McConnell told him. “This is what I want. I want to play in the NCAA tournament. I’m going to try to transfer.”
His son’s declaration shocked Tim McConnell. T.J. had never broached the subject before. Tim believed Duquesne fit his son’s talent level just fine, and he worried the talent at a larger school might swallow T.J. The thought that came into his head was, “Whoa.” The words that came out of his mouth were, “We got to talk about this.”
On Wednesday morning, which happened to be T.J.’s 23rd birthday, Tim McConnell boarded a flight out of Pittsburgh International Airport bound for Los Angeles, where Thursday night he will settle into a seat to watch another NCAA tournament game. His son will not be sitting next to him, because he will be on the court.
T.J. McConnell will lead the second-seeded Arizona Wildcats against sixth-seeded Xavier in the Sweet 16. Three years after the sudden announcement to his father, McConnell has become the engine of a team with national championship aspirations.
He was perhaps the best player in the tournament’s first weekend: 31 points on 21 field goal attempts, 10 assists and just four turnovers, 10 rebounds and nine steals in two games. Against Ohio State, he played 39 minutes and hounded star guard D’Angelo Russell into a 3-for-19 shooting performance. Afterward, both coaches called him the best player on the court.
“He’s our most valuable player because of what he’s done consistently over time,” Arizona Coach Sean Miller said. “I think he’s one of the best players that’s playing in college basketball right now.”
One of the best players in college basketball stood 5-foot-8 and weighed 145 pounds as a freshman at Chartiers Valley. During that season, Ron Everhart, then the head coach at Duquesne, watched McConnell play against Jeannette High and a 6-foot-4 forward named Terrelle Pryor, who would play quarterback for Ohio State and, later, the Oakland Raiders.
Everhart can still remember the play that made him fall in love. McConnell stole the ball from Pryor at midcourt, raced down the floor with Pryor in pursuit and used the rim to prevent Pryor from blocking his lay-up, two of 16 points he scored that night.
“My first thought was that this kid was going to be really special,” said Everhart, now an assistant at West Virginia. “He really knew how to play, he understood how to see the floor, his vision was tremendous, and I knew. I knew. I had that gut feeling. It’s almost like you see the girl you want to take to the prom. You know.”
McConnell attended Duquesne’s summer camp after his sophomore season. He had grown only one inch, but Everhart still knew. He offered him a scholarship. McConnell accepted. No larger schools – including, notably, Pittsburgh – showed interest in prying him from his commitment. Duquesne fans greeted the news with derision. One of them sent Everhart an email that read, “Since when did we start recruiting waterboys?”
“It was unbelievable how many people thought I was crazier than hell for taking a commitment from a young kid at that size,” Everhart said. “And then as the years went on, he proved all those people wrong.”
Everhart needed no convincing. Later in McConnell’s high school career, his father went to lunch with Everhart and two coaching friends. When Tim McConnell went to the bathroom, Everhart told the other two men at the table about T.J., “I don’t know if Tim knows this, but he’s better than Duquesne.”
McConnell sprouted to a whopping 6-1 by the time he enrolled at Duquesne. As a freshman, he averaged 10.8 points and 4.4 assists per game, ranked fourth in the nation in steals and won the Atlantic 10 freshman of the year award. As a sophomore, he ranked third in the nation with 2.8 steals per game and averaged 11.4 points.
And then McConnell watched Ohio State play Gonzaga and he had his epiphany. His father and mother took him out to dinner that night. Tim McConnell asked his son if he was sure. Things were going well at Duquesne, even if the school had fired Everhart. McConnell had made up his mind. “Nothing against Duquesne,” he told his father, “but I don’t see myself ever going to the NCAA tournament and winning a national championship there.”
Once he made his intentions clear, calls poured in from coaches. The McConnells visited Virginia first, and they loved it. Then came Arizona and Miller, a Pittsburgh kid himself. Tim McConnell had known Miller’s father, a high school coaching legend in Pennsylvania, for years. The program offered exactly what McConnell wanted. Once he returned home, he decided he would transfer to Arizona.
“He’s not real cocky,” Tim McConnell said. “He’s not a cocky kid. But when he puts his mind to something, he really goes after it. The motivation for him was people thought he couldn’t do it. When he was transferring, people told him, ‘You’re over your head.’ People doubted him. When people were saying that, I wanted people to keep saying that. He’s the kind of person that wants to prove people wrong. He has the ‘it.’ What is the ‘it?’ It’s tough to explain, but it’s something special.”
Still, Tim McConnell worried. He talked to Miller to make sure he really believed McConnell could play in the Pac-12, on a team loaded with elite recruits. “I’m not bringing your son out here to sit on the bench,” Miller assured him. “He’s the kind of point I need for this program and the kind of point guard that I want.”
“I thought he’d be okay,” Tim McConnell said. “Did I know he’d be this okay? No.”
The impact McConnell made was immediate. NCAA transfer rules dictated McConnell sit out the 2012-13 season, which helped McConnell add size and strength. But he practiced with the Wildcats every day. His defensive intensity spread throughout teammates and eventually surfaced in games.
“I’m telling you, he made our team better even in that year,” Miller said.
Arizona takes the floor this season with four starters 6-7 or taller, all of them major recruits, including freshman Stanley Johnson a surefire lottery pick. It takes McConnell to bring them together. He can tell when he needs to score and when he should distribute. He guards the opponent’s best perimeter player. He plays with both joy and purpose, like a coach’s son.
The truth can be told now, now that T.J. McConnell has reached the top of college basketball, now that Tim knows his son made the right choice: Tim McConnell wasn’t so sure T.J. should have ever left Duquesne.
“Absolutely, I was worried,” Tim McConnell said. “Never in a million years did I think he’d be playing for a top-five program.”
What about the NBA? Everhart coached eight-year NBA guard J.J. Barea at Northeastern, and he believes McConnell can have the same career.
“People will say all the things that they always say: Is he fast enough? Is he this? Is he that?” Everhart said. “And then when somebody gets that kid in camp and they watch him live and in person and they see what he’s gonna do with the other guys around him, they’ll say, ‘Damn, he’s really good.’
“I’ll just remind everybody wherever T.J. goes, whoever he deals with, wherever he ends up, I just want to remind everybody John Stockton had the same issues. He ended up being the assist leader forever in the best league in the world. And McConnell’s a whole lot like him.”
McConnell is too busy to concern himself with the NBA. His career has turned out exactly as he wanted three years ago, when he watched that tournament game and told his father his plans. At that moment, Tim McConnell was so stunned he asked his son to repeat himself. He remains dumbfounded, but in a much more wonderful way, by what his Pittsburgh kid has become.
“I’m the proudest father in America,” McConnell said.
Chuck Culpepper contributed to this story from Columbus, Ohio.