As Arizona basketball fans, we've become accustomed to seeing our former players succeed on the next level. It usually follows some sort of hype. Aaron Gordon was selected 4th overall in what was regarded as the "most loaded" NBA draft in over a decade. So, seeing him be a highlight reel for the Orlando Magic comes as no surprise to anyone. Stanley Johnson was described as being "NBA ready" and having an "NBA physique". Being picked 8th overall by Detroit, it shouldn't come as any surprise that he's proven in the preseason to be ready to make an impact.
There's one Arizona alum putting on a show in the NBA preseason that wasn't "supposed" to happen. He can't jump out of the gym like AG. He doesn't have an "NBA physique" like Stanimal. He's not uber-athletic like Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. But none of that matters because die-hard Philadelphia 76er fans are finding out what we in Tucson have known for two years: T.J. McConnell is a game-changer.
I'm 27 years old and I've had the benefit of seeing many great point guards come through my beautiful city. I have memories of Mighty Mouse, Damon Stoudamire, blowing by opponents and finishing with unbelievable up and unders. I remember Mike Bibby's no look passes and silky smooth jumper, Jason Terry's high socks and frenetic pace, and Jason Gardner's quickness, stutter step and ability to make the right play at the right time.
T.J. was different. You could see it when he first put on an Arizona Wildcats uniform. He wasn't an athletic phenom like those guys. He didn't have the prettiest shot or the quickest first step, like Wildcats' point guard past. On top of the reputation Arizona has earned as Point Guard U, Sean Miller's recruiting over the last six years has been unbelievable. It's brought Arizona back to the prominence it had under, the Godfather of Tucson, Lute Olson. But I can't honestly say that any recruit has made near the difference that T.J. McConnell made in his two years. Among a long line of highly-touted recruits, a two-year transfer player from Duquesne is the most influential player that Sean Miller has brought to town. He was the ideal Sean Miller player. A tough kid from Pittsburgh who just wanted to win. What T.J. brought to the table is what led to the success of Arizona basketball over the last two years: Leadership. Grit. Toughness.
T.J. brought an intensity we weren't all that familiar with. He'd make a steal, lead a fast break, help someone to a finish and let out a loud scream. He would take a charge, stand up, pump his fist and flash a smirk, like he just pulled a fast one on his poor opponent. At McKale, he was having fun. He wanted to get the crowd on its feet and keep 'em there. On the road, he was downright mean. He took pleasure in embarrassing foes and quieting opposing crowds to a whisper. He's a floor slapping, chaos causing, killer of a basketball player. Let's face it, if he were wearing any uniform other than our beloved Wildcats, we would've hated him!
His attitude was contagious. He made everyone around him better and more than anything else, tougher. We can't dispute the results. We ended up with the best two year run in program history.
67-9 record, a win percentage of .882.
Back-to-back Elite Eights, the first time since 97-98.
31-5 in conference play, a pair of regular season conference championships and we finally got the elusive Pac 12 Tournament Championship.
Quite possibly the most staggering statistic: 35-0 at McKale Center.
I don't know that there's anything more important in college basketball than having a legitimate home court advantage. Every single time T.J. McConnell stepped on our home floor, he walked off a winner.
Things weren't perfect. There was no trophy raising in April. We still have zero Final Fours since 2001. The Wisconsin Badgers had our number in March two consecutive years. Both years, we fell short against Tempe Normal School in their home arena. We, as fans, hate the fact that things weren't perfect. Those teams were so special. But nobody hates it more than T.J. Nobody cared more than T.J. The moment he walked off the floor at the end of the Wisconsin game, with tears streaming down his face, all he could say was, "I'm sorry." He put it on himself. He said later, "It sucks. I wanted to get (Coach Miller) and this team to the Final Four."
I think that's the thing that we should all remember him for. Not the fact that he wasn't able to get us to a Final Four. But the fact that that's all he ever wanted. He gave us everything he had, every single time he put on the Wildcat uniform. And quite frankly, he gave us everything we could have asked for and more. He put the Point Guard back in Point Guard U. He was the key cog in two of the most special teams in Arizona history. And he absolutely loved Arizona basketball. Kissing the A at center court as he left his final game at McKale was evidence of that.
As a fan of this program, it's easy to get spoiled. We didn't know how dreary things can get until we had to deal with coach turnover, the Kevin O'Neill year, missing the tournament in 2010. Sean Miller has done a wonderful job of restoring things and, admittedly, it would be easy to look at the last two years and just say, "Yep, this is Arizona." But before we do that, I want to think back to that time. We know what being less than elite feels like. I don't want to take these last couple of years for granted. Arizona is back in a big way. That's all thanks to Sean Miller and two groups of young men, led by the tough kid from Pittsburgh.
Any NBA organization would be lucky to have a kid like T.J. Philly is the one lucky enough. Let's hope they know what they have and have the brains to put him on the opening day roster and put the ball in his hands. If not, he'll remember. And when he does get signed somewhere else, he'll go out of his way to give them a few extra fist pumps and smirks.