Less than three minutes into Arizona’s exhibition opener against visiting Augustana, an 84-52 Wildcat win Monday night at McKale Center, T.J. McConnell did exactly as advertised.
First, he dropped a pretty jumper from the sideline, then he dropped a prettier dime to Nick Johnson for a three-pointer.
Point guard, point made.
In his first 11 minutes of playing time, the junior guard, who sat out last season after transferring from Duquesne, had nine points, four assists, three steals and two rebounds.
“T.J. McConnell played in today’s game like he’s practiced the entire time,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “This is my 10th year, and we’ve always kept practice stats, and I don’t think we’ve had a point guard dominate practice stats from the first 22, 23 practices like he had.”
McConnell finished with 12 points on 5-of-6 shooting, eight assists, three rebounds and three steals in 23 minutes, displaying the versatility that he showed at Duquesne, where he averaged 11.4 points, 5.5 assists and 2.8 steals as a sophomore in 2011-12.
And then there were the things that don’t often show up in a stat sheet.
The enthusiastic high-fives with backcourt mates Johnson and Gabe York. The dagger three-pointers. The steal-layup-and-drawn charge sequence that lifted the team’s energy.
McConnell provided enough energy for a nuclear power station, as the redshirt year of toiling in practice but without games to play had him wound tight.
“It’s been a while but it felt great to be back on the court,” McConnell said. “I’ve been anxious for two years to get back. It was a great experience.”
With McConnell leading the charge with his unselfish and heady play, the rest of the Wildcats followed suit. Arizona shot 51 percent from the field and had 21 assists, with all but two players in the 10-man rotation finishing with assists.
It marked a drastic change from last season, when the Wildcats had leading-scorer Mark Lyons as the primary ball-handler.
Lyons may have made a big impact after his transfer from Xavier, scoring 15.6 points per game in his lone campaign in Tucson, but it sometimes came at the expense of offensive flow.
“Last year, we had Mark and he was more of a scoring point guard,” said sophomore guard Gabe York, who scored 14 points as his playing time increased along with his confidence. “T.J., you don’t know what he is going to do. He can pass or score. He can pass even better than he can score.”
Case in point: A perfect pass midway through the second half that led to an easy layup.
McConnell played just nine second-half minutes as Miller mixed and matched his rotation, but he had multiple memorable moments, including one with Miller.
With just more than eight minutes remaining, McConnell made a beautiful dish to a cutting Brandon Ashley who laid the ball in to give Arizona a 75-44 lead.
Backpedaling down the court, McConnell’s eyes darted to his head coach and the two pointed at each other.
You get the feeling Miller — a former Pittsburgh-bred point guard himself, also a coach’s son, also a distributor – sees a little Sean Miller in T.J. McConnell.
“As everyone knows, coach Miller was a great point guard,” McConnell said. “He teaches me so much about the game. When I make a pass like that, we just look at each other and it’s like … ‘great pass.’ We just have that connection.”