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McConnell is Arizona's steady hand

TUCSON, Ariz. -- Aaron Gordon, born and raised in Northern California, had never heard the word "yinz" before he met his point guard. Months later, he still isn't sure of its meaning.

"Yeah," he asked. "What is a yinz?"

Ditto Nick Johnson, an Arizona kid.

"I had no idea what it was," Johnson said.

Sean Miller knows. He and T.J. McConnell, after all, speak the same language.

And in more ways than one.

The two are native Pittsburghers, Steelers fans and Primanti Brothers sandwich aficionados, but above all else, they share an all-consuming basketball passion. Genetically predisposed to love the game, they took that nature and nurtured it into an all-encompassing passion.

"

You're not supposed to miss, because you practice. I get that. I was the same way.

"-- Arizona coach Sean Miller

Now together at Arizona, the displaced yinz (the Pittsburgh version of "y'all") have combined their East Coast, Type-A personalities to spark a fire in the desert and lead the Wildcats to a Sweet 16 matchup with San Diego State.

"One of the things that helps me coach him is he's hard on himself, and I was like that too," Miller said. "Missing a shot, you wanted to throw the ball as hard as you could at something. You're not supposed to miss, because you practice. I get that. I was the same way."

It would be entirely inaccurate to say that McConnell is the sole reason Arizona is in the regional semifinal. Even without Brandon Ashley, the Wildcats' roster is wildly loaded.

But McConnell, the rare true point guard instead of the more common combo guard, has taken a good team and made it great. His bond with his teammates could be the most copacetic relationship in college basketball -- a point guard whose Twitter handle is @ipass4zona with a host of recipients to choose from.

A year ago with combo guard Mark Lyons running the point, a very good Arizona team ranked 147th nationally in turnover rate (19.5 percent of offensive possessions); this year the Wildcats are 38th (15.9). Similarly, last year's squad was 156th in assist rate (54.1 percent) and now is 44th (58.1).

That's not a knock on Lyons as much as it is a cap tip to McConnell. His game, like his coach's, is as blue as his collar, borne out of two families that know nothing other than how to play basketball, honed in a city where even the silver spoons are dipped in steel.

"The way T.J. is, the way Sean is, that goes back to being a Pittsburgher," said Arizona athletic trainer Justin Kokoskie, another Pittsburgh native. "It's a total mentality, the way they approach everything in life. The laid-back, West-Coast mentality -- you just don't see that. These guys were born to be basketball coaches and players."


Except basketball isn't a natural choice in Pittsburgh. The hometown of Dan Marino, Joe Namath and Joe Montana prefers the pigskin to the pick-and-roll.

The McConnells were the outliers -- eight kids, seven basketball players (the oldest daughter, Patty, was the cheerleader renegade). One, Suzie, would go on to become a two-time college All-American, gold medalist and women's basketball Hall of Fame member; four would become coaches and another a Division I official.

"You talk about blackballed? It wasn't Patty. Michael's the one that's blackballed," said Tim McConnell, T.J.'s father. "I don't know an official I like, and he became one."

Tim is a high school coach at Chartiers Valley and a pretty good one. His teams have won more than 300 games, including 99 while T.J. was in school.

The father let his son tag along with him to practices when he was younger. T.J. would dart in and out of drills. He can't remember a time in his life when he didn't want to play basketball, when he didn't have a ball in his hand. Tim didn't push T.J. He didn't need to.

The only thing his dad did was ensure that T.J. knew how to play the point.

"We're all pretty small, so I knew he'd be small too," Tim said. "I knew he'd have to be a good ball handler to be a success."

Still, at just 6-foot-1, T.J. wasn't turning a lot of Division I heads. When Duquesne offered him a scholarship before his sophomore year in high school, he happily accepted. It wasn't a bad choice. It was home, Suzie was the women's coach, and the Dukes' coaching staff wanted him.

But after two years, during which Duquesne went a combined 35-28, Tim and T.J. bought tickets to the 2012 NCAA tournament first-weekend games at the Consol Energy Center. Aaron Craft, not much bigger than T.J., starred for Ohio State, and T.J. thought maybe he had underestimated himself.

He and Tim talked it over, and together they decided he should and could roll the dice to see if a bigger program might be interested in T.J. as a transfer.

The first to raise his hand? Miller.

If there is an iconic basketball brand name in Pittsburgh, it is Miller. Sean's father, John, won five state titles and eight area crowns at Blackhawk High School. Sean starred at Pitt. His sister, Lisa, played at Toledo and Elon. And his kid brother, Archie, is the coach at Sweet 16-bound Dayton.

After John Miller retired, Tim became the go-to high school hoops success story, complete with a decent family lineage of his own.

So Miller not only knew of T.J., but he understood him. He was him.

"When I came out of high school in 1987, I would have heard the same thing," Miller said. "Football players come from Pittsburgh, but not basketball players. I knew T.J. from his time at Duquesne, through his family. There wasn't a doubt in my mind that he'd be successful here."


There were doubts just about everywhere else. A Duquesne player at Arizona? Really?

"I heard it quite a lot," McConnell said.

If any of the players questioned Miller's decision, they soon stopped. McConnell sat out last season as a transfer but still managed to earn the team's Gold Standard award more than once. The coaches award it to the player who practices hardest. The winner wears a gold jersey for a week and is exempt from running.

"I'm sure there were people, some of our fans, maybe, who wondered," Johnson said. "It's natural, knowing he's coming to a big stage like Arizona. The people that matter, the coaches, the players, we saw what he could do last year. We never doubted it."

The doubt, along with his size and hometown, deepened the chip on McConnell's shoulder. He came into the season wanting more than anything to prove that he belonged among the elite, and at Arizona.

He silenced any lingering critics in his first month. In the Wildcats' first prime-time game against Duke, McConnell scored 10 points, dished the ball for eight assists and added six rebounds in 39 minutes.

Now, 36 games later, he ranks 11th in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio, and no one is asking what a Duquesne player is doing at Arizona anymore.

As for the fitting in part? Well, that's a little trickier. McConnell is still a little gun-shy about Arizona's Mexican-infused food. He'll venture as far as Chipotle but walked into an interview carrying a more comfortable McDonald's bag.

And his teammates are still a little confused with the way he talks.

"He says, 'Dahn there,'" Gordon said. "I can't even say it like he does."

But with Arizona headed to Anaheim for the West Regional and just two games away from a Final Four trip to Arlington, Texas, no one is complaining.

In fact, yinz are welcome to come dahn and join him.