Through the first ten games of the season, it can be noted that the Arizona Wildcats over the course of a game will look toward their quarterback to make a play.
Redshirt senior TJ McConnell now in his second season as the starting point guard of the team has settled in as one of the main leaders. When the Wildcats need a spark, he seems to know the perfect time to make a play whether it be a steal or a bucket that gets his teammates as well as the fans fired up.
That type of leadership is something McConnell believe comes natural.
“I look at myself as more of a lead by example guy,” McConnell said at the Wildcats weekly press conference on Monday. “Doing whatever it takes to help this team win. If people label me as a leader, then that’s great. But I am just doing whatever it takes for us to win.”
“We have Brandon (Ashley), Kaleb (Tarczewski) and myself and we are capable of doing what great leaders do,” he added. “We lost a great leader in Nick (Johnson) last year and obviously we have a whole different team, but when you have different guys, new leaders step up and lead the way. I think us three have done a good job with that.”
“TJ McConnell I think is having a great first ten games,” mentioned Arizona Head Coach Sean Miller. “He’s our team’s heart and soul, especially with what he does defensively. It’s not just what he does on the ball, but it’s the numbers of big plays and important plays he has made off it with steals, hustle plays, being in the right place at the right time. He is one of the many tone setters on our team to where other guys follow his lead and his intensity.”
When it comes to leading by example, it also shows when that person can admit and look to reconcile areas of their game that has not met expectations. Another thing that McConnell is not afraid to do.
“As everyone knows, I am struggling shooting the ball,” he stated. “I am going to keep shooting. Everyone goes through slumps and it’s just about shooting your way out of it. I am going to be fine. I am not really worried about that.”
The Wildcats look to Gabe York and Elliot Pitts as their primary perimeter shooters but even Sean Miller would admit that they were hoping for a little more from McConnell in that aspect of the game. He is shooting 28% from behind the arc on the season and 37% from the field total.
“I’d be lying to you if I said it doesn’t bother me at all,” he added. “But I am shooting every day during practice, I am shooting before practice. When they are not falling, there is really not much you can do about it, but just keep shooting and that has kind of been my approach the whole time.”
“He’s put in the work, he can shoot the ball,” said Miller. “It’s just a matter of him taking the good ones and not worrying about the misses and like they say, those odds go into your favor if in fact you are that type of shooter…It all tends to work itself out and I think over the course of a long season, I think for TJ I will not be surprised if he is not in the high 30s from three eventually.”
Though the shots may not be falling presently, McConnell’s value in many other aspects are a big part of the Wildcat’s 10-0 start for the second consecutive season. He is looking like an All-Conference defender leading the team with 24 steals. His assist to turnover ratio is just under three to one. Miller mentioned that the shots falling is just the last chip that needs to fall in his favor.
“That’s the last piece to him and when that shows up, that enhances what we already do,” Miller stated. “That makes him an even better and more valuable player.”
Meanwhile for McConnell, working on himself is just one thing he works on every day. He also spends a lot of time both on and off the court working with true freshman point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright. McConnell’s backup has done a great job already this season stepping in when TJ is off the floor and maintaining or even enhancing the game of the players around him.
Like McConnell, Jackson-Cartwright’s assist to turnover ratio has been phenomenal at just over five to one. The two have already formed a special bond which is clearly making the freshman turn some heads much sooner than many might have expected.
“He’s like my little brother,” said McConnell. “We are that close. We talk every day in practice, we are talking off the court. Even when I graduate I think me and him will have that kind of relationship so, it’s bigger than a teammate or a mentor and mentee. It’s pretty much a brother relationship.”
While the focus sometimes is on the short-comings of a player with expectations like McConnell, it is as important as ever to spotlight the highlights. The defense, the guidance and the leadership is boosting those around him which is the biggest challenge for the point guard of a team.
It shows just how far this team could go if the they still find success riding McConnell’s coat tails even while he is not playing a complete game in all phases that are up to his standards.