Saturday will mark the Senior Day and final home game for four individuals who play college basketball in Arizona. Each have taken unique roads and each have brought integral success to their respective teams.
T.J. McConnell, Arizona: Adam Butler of PacHoops.com had an incredible note after Arizona’s blowout win of Cal on Thursday that if the Wildcats beat Stanford on Saturday, T.J. McConnell will have lost just one game at the McKale Center in his career. That one game would happen to be his first ever game there as a freshman, but as a member of Duquesne.
McConnell received MVP chants from the McKale Center crowd on Thursday night and even he admitted it gave him the chills when meeting with the media after the game. Saying that he has been the MVP of this season for the Wildcats would be a gross understatement. I would venture to say that he has been one of the MVP’s of the Sean Miller era at Arizona. What he has meant to the program the last three years has been a huge reason for the Wildcats becoming Pac-12 Champs for two consecutive years. It goes back further than his last two seasons as the starting point guard. It includes the season he had to sit out after transferring into the program and the impact he was said to have made on the practice court every day. His leadership, hustle, attitude and toughness was something the program quite frankly lacked going back to Lute Olson’s final years as coach.
The best part is the fact that of all the great talent that Miller has brought in, McConnell might be the least heralded of the bunch but you can argue that none have been more impactful. Miller never looked at it that way because he knew what TJ was capable of since they grew up in the same neck of the woods in Pittsburgh. If the Wildcats can finally get over that big hump and Sean Miller can make the Final Four for the first time, it will be in large part because his quarterback McConnell is driving the ship.
Shaquille McKissic, Arizona State: Five years ago, Shaquille McKissic was in standing in front of a judge in Seattle, WA after an attempted burglary conviction, three months in jail, living with an abusive stepfather and being homeless. The judge asked him what he wanted to do with his life and his answer, he was going to play college basketball.
He started off at the Junior College level before coming to the Sun Devils to play for at the time, one season and boy, did he make the most of it. Herb Sendek before the 2013-14 season said Shaq was the team’s “biggest positive and consistent surprise.” He has been all that and then some ever since. From Sendek finding it hard to not have him on the floor last season with a team that included Jahii Carson, Jordan Bachynski and Jermaine Marshall, to being granted one more year of eligibility for this season from the NCAA and being the outright leader and face of the team in just a years time.
I was sitting with a team manager at the end of ASU’s win over Stanford on Thursday night and he told me that Shaq before the game commented that he refused to lose that game. Then you watched him on the court and he was un-guardable and his energy on both ends was un-matched. He looked like a player who knew what it was like to almost having your future taken away and not allowing a second to go by without giving everything you had once given a second chance.
Statistically, McKissic might not go down as one of the best players to wear an ASU uniform, but he will definitely go down as one of the most remarkable stories of the Herb Sendek era. Better yet, maybe any era of ASU hoops.
Daniel Alexander, Grand Canyon: Once the 89th ranked prospect in the country according to Rivals.com out of Dripping Springs High School in Austin, TX, Daniel Alexander was expected to be a key piece for the future at Texas A&M. As a redshirt freshman in 2011-12, Alexander worked his way into the starting lineup for the Aggies and averaged almost seven points and four rebounds in 28 games played. But after playing in just one game in the 2012-13 season, he got hurt, missed the rest of the season and decided to transfer.
His landing spot was the newly division I Grand Canyon University and because of playing in that one game, he was forced to sit out the entire first half of GCU’s 2013-14 season. He made his debut for the ‘Lopes and went on to be a monster in the team’s first ever run through the WAC schedule. he averaged 12.7 points and 5.6 rebounds and leading the team with 58 three-pointers made in 22 games.
From being around the team, it is safe to say from an outsiders point of view that Alexander and head coach Dan Majerle are almost like the Odd Couple. Majerele is old school, intense and in your face as a coach while Alexander is a little more free spirited, laid back, sits in the hours before tip-off with a book in his hand, and jokingly (maybe?) uses rock crystals from some remote mountain in Texas to bring him luck and energy. You get my drift. But you put these two together the last two years and the ‘Lopes have won 17 of 29 games in the WAC Conference in their first two seasons of being in it.
Alexander has brought a skill set that was imperative for a team making the jump from division II to division I. People will look back at Alexander and remember he was one of the most important pieces of the start of the Majerle era at GCU.
Quinton Upshur, Northern Arizona: Going into the 2013-14 season, the first for Upshur in Flagstaff, he was about to play for his third different team in three years. Starting with his senior year at Booker T. Washington High School in Norfolk, VA, followed by his freshman year at the Virginia Military Institute and then transferring and playing at Kilgore Junior College in Texas his sophomore season where he was a JUCO All-American nominee.
Head Coach Jack Murphy going into his second year at the helm of the NAU program at the time needed a big time scoring threat to help get his team to the next level of success. He saw Upshur being that guy and recruited him out to Flagstaff, a place Upshur had never heard of before meeting Coach Murphy. That hard work and recruiting has since paid off as Upshur has been the team’s leading scorer for each of the last two seasons.
NAU back in 2011-12 won just one Big Sky game and five overall. The next year, Jack Murphy took over and got the team up to eight wins in conference and a middle of the pack. But since Upshur arrived, NAU is a combined 28-13 in Big Sky contests over the last two seasons and for Senior Day this Saturday, can ultimately end up a two-seed starting with a win against Sacramento State. The NAU program has elevated by leaps and bounds over the last three seasons and Upshur’s ability to score has been one of the most important pieces.