ANAHEIM, Calif. - At about the worst possible time Thursday night, T.J. McConnell threw a pass with such force that it ricocheted off Rondae Hollis-Jefferson’s hand, out of bounds.
Sean Miller’s cheeks turned a whiter shade of pale. He glanced at assistant coach Joe Pasternack, which was an insider’s code for “get McConnell out of there.”
With 13:33 remaining in the Sweet 16, McConnell got the hook. San Diego State led 42-38. Pasternack instructed Jordin Mayes to check in.
You wondered: How long would Miller leave Arizona’s glue-guy in exile?
This is how long: 55 seconds.
No wonder Miller was the Pac-12 Coach of the Year.
McConnell played each of Arizona’s final 23 possessions, all with the basketball equivalent of being chased by bloodhounds. He did not have a turnover. His dazzling, left-handed, no-look layup gave the Wildcats a 50-49 lead. His epic steal, followed by a full-out sprawl and recovery pass that led to Nick Johnson’s layup and a 56-51 lead, buried the Aztecs.
On Friday, McConnell’s teammates paid tribute to his clutch performance with some predictable stuff about “he’s a coach on the court.”
But they weren’t blowing off some BS; they were truly insightful and impressed.
As McConnell sprawled at midcourt with 2:46 remaining, swarmed by Aztecs desperate to get the ball, he did not call time out to protect the ball. He remembered Miller’s instructions from a timeout with 4:21 on the clock.
“We’ve got the possession arrow,” said Miller. “Don’t blow a timeout if you are in danger of getting tied up.”
Because McConnell was listening to his coach when listening the coach was as important as it has been all season, it resulted in a breakaway layup and a 56-51 lead, the value of which is incalculable.
“If we don’t get the ball and that basket, it might’ve turned out differently,” Johnson said Friday. “It’s why T.J.’s such a winner.”
A modest guy who doesn’t buy into the give-me-some-pub approach, McConnell shrugged when asked about keeping the ball alive as the game turned.
“My first thought was, ‘I’m not going to let anybody else get that loose ball,’ ” he remembered. “Then I had to get the ball to the first guy in a white jersey I saw. We talk about the possession arrow in timeouts. It was going to be our possession no matter what.”
How many players are that locked in and instinctive? McConnell, of course, is the son of a coach, and it shows. In 1993, when Tim McConnell left the coaching staff at NAIA Waynesboro (Pa.) College to become the head coach at nearby Chartiers Valley High School, Waynesboro coach Rudy Marisa told a Pittsburgh newspaper that Tim McConnell “is the best hustler I coached.”
Apple. Tree. Father. Son.
A lot of Arizona basketball players use their UA years to train for the NBA. And even though McConnell seems sure to play pro basketball for a few years, he, like Sean Miller at Pitt a generation earlier, is using his college days as on-the-job-coaching training.
Then this surprise: On Friday, Miller predicted that before McConnell becomes a coach, he will play in the NBA.
“I don’t think he’ll be an NBA starting point guard, but there’s not a doubt in my mind that if he adds this off-season what he’s already done, that he’s going to be in the mix to be that player who is a career NBA backup,” said Miller.
“He’s going to make some money playing the game first. That’s what I always tell him, and that’s why we try to set the bar high for him. Think about what he did defensively (Thursday), how much he meant to our team offensively. He’s the engine that makes us go.”
Someday, maybe in 2035 or thereabouts, McConnell is likely to enter an NCAA tournament interview auditorium as the head coach, and not a bulldog point guard.
“When his career ends, I think there will be a fight to add him to coaching staffs,” Miller said. “He has all the qualities that you want on that other side.”
Much like his father, McConnell transferred after his sophomore year, from Duquesne to Arizona. Tim McConnell left tiny Geneva (Pa). College to get to a bigger stage at Waynesburg, where he flourished and the Yellow Jackets became an NAIA powerhouse.
It’s an irresistible story, but McConnell-the-future coach is a story to file away for a few years; it is first imperative that he play against Wisconsin the way he did in the Sweet 16. But this coach-on-the-court stuff came to life against San Diego State like never before.
“I would love to be a college basketball coach,” he said Friday. “To play for a guy like Coach Miller is only helping that dream of mine.”
Even Johnson can see it.
“Years from now,” said Johnson, “after my playing career, maybe I can be on his staff.”
Coach T.J. Someday. Book it.