T.J. McConnell’s fire fueling No. 7 Arizona’s rise

TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — The mayor of McKale Center goes to work any chance he gets, during free throws, TV timeouts, video reviews.

Typically holding court near center court, he greets players like a first baseman chatting with opposing baserunners, bantering about how well they’re playing, how much he respects them, maybe saying something to make them laugh.

Occasionally, he’ll wander in front of the opposing team’s bench, praise the coach or chat with a player.

Once the game goes live again, Arizona point guard T.J. McConnell transforms.

He spits fire, not compliments. Hounds opponents relentlessly. Howls at the crowd with a red-faced fury. Puts every ounce of his being toward winning.

“After that free throw goes up, it’s game on,” McConnell said.

The arrival of Sean Miller as Arizona’s head coach in 2009 started a revolving door of star players into McKale Center.

Derrick Williams, Aaron Gordon, Nick Johnson and Solomon Hill all went to the NBA. Stanley Johnson, Brandon Ashley, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Kaleb Tarczewski could end up there.

McConnell, the one player who came to the desert without all the hype, may be the most important piece of the puzzle.

Scrappy, tenacious, heady, efficient and now more of a leader and a scorer, the senior is the piston that keeps No. 7 Arizona churning forward.

“T.J. came here with very little fanfare, but I can make the argument that no player that we’ve brought here during my time has been more instrumental toward winning than him,” Miller said.

McConnell was lightly regarded out of high school and played two seasons at Duquesne, a small Catholic university in Pittsburgh.

Wanting to challenge himself at a higher level, he opted to transfer to Arizona in 2012.

McConnell had an immediate impact even when he couldn’t play. Sitting out under transfer rules, McConnell gave the Wildcats a behind-the-scenes push in practice during the 2012-13 season, helping them earn an NCAA tournament berth.

Once he got on the court, McConnell gave Miller the one thing he needed the most: a pass-first point guard. With McConnell leading the way, the Wildcats came within seconds of reaching the Final Four last season.

McConnell established himself as a leader for Arizona (20-3, 8-2 Pac-12) this season, still playing in-your-jersey defense and setting up teammates while becoming more of a scorer.

“He is the head of the snake,” Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said.

McConnell has made the snake even more dangerous this season.

Though a good scorer in high school, McConnell became more of a pass-first point guard in college, figuring that was what his best shot at playing time. He played it that way for two seasons at Duquesne and during his first season at Arizona.

Though a good shooter, McConnell would at times go into a funk when he missed a couple of shots in a row, prompting Miller to tell him to be more confident.

He’s done just that this season.

After a feeling-out process with the 2014-15 team, McConnell began to assert himself more once the Pac-12 season started, confidently stroking in jumpers and driving to the basket.

McConnell is Arizona’s second-leading scorer in conference at 12.3 points per game and is shooting 56 percent, including 47 percent from 3-point range. He scored 25 points in a loss to rival Arizona State on Saturday and had 21 in a rout over Oregon on Jan. 8.

McConnell’s uptick in scoring hasn’t affected what he does best: Distribute the ball on offense and take it away on defense.

McConnell averages 5.7 assists per game and is 15th nationally with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 3-to-1. He also leads the Wildcats with 49 steals, including a career-high eight against Oregon State two weeks ago, and is as sound defensively as anyone in the country.

Despite playing on a team full of stars and in a conference loaded with great players, McConnell has become a front-runner to win the Pac-12’s player of the year award — even if he doesn’t really want to hear it.

“It’s obviously a confidence boost, but I’m just going out and playing every game like I have all year,” McConnell said. “I try not to let any of that stuff in. Winning means more than anything to me.”

Though McConnell’s competitiveness sometimes causes in-game clashes with Miller, it is the fuel that drives the Wildcats to new heights, particularly when he’s diving for loose balls or screaming and raising his arms to extoll the McKale Center crowd.

“Coach uses the analogy that he sometimes drives the car of the team,” said Johnson, Arizona’s latest highly regarded freshman. “He’s the heart and soul and when his face gets red and he’s pumping his veins, that’s every day for him.”

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