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Arizona basketball: Don’t overlook T.J. McConnell’s impact on defense

T.J. McConnell

T.J. McConnell could only help from the bench last season. Photo by Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Ask Arizona Wildcats freshman forward Aaron Gordon about point guard T.J. McConnell, and he gets giddy about the junior’s offense.

“He’s amazing,” Gordon said of McConnell, eligible this season after his transfer from Duquesne.

“He isn’t the most athletic guy, but he’s quick, he’s fast, he’s extremely smart. He makes passes that I don’t see. And that is what is most impressive.

“Usually, I have pretty good vision, so I can see a lot of passes. But he’s the one person who will make a pass, and I’ll be like, ‘Whoa, where did that come from?’

“I cannot wait. I cannot wait to play with T.J.”

Ask Arizona coach Sean Miller about McConnell and you could very well get all the gushing, only on a different theme:

McConnell’s defense.

“As much as everyone focuses on offense, to me one of the things we have had a problem with in recent years that I believe T.J. can solve is his ability to defend — not only the man he is guarding, but just playing team defense.

“He’s tenacious on defense. He has a gift in terms of being able to steal the ball.”

That he does.

He averaged 2.8 steals per game in each of his two seasons at Duquesne, ranking fourth nationally as a freshman in 2010-11 and third as a sophomore.

Only two players in Miller’s four seasons at Arizona have averaged significantly more than one steal in game — Nic Wise (1.7 in 2009-10) and Nick Johnson (1.9 last season). McConnell figures to be a huge upgrade.

Miller’s pack-line defense isn’t a jump-into-the-passing-lane kind of scheme, but he has the personnel to get more aggressive with his man-to-man this season. More trapping. Perhaps some full-court pressing. McConnell — “dynamic” off the ball, Miller said — will be key to all of it.

Miller’s best Arizona teams, in terms of field-goal percentage defense, have come in the past two seasons. The Cats allowed 40.6 percent shooting in 2011-12 and 41.1 percent shooting last year. And that was without a good defensive point guard.

McConnell (6-1, 190) will establish the team’s defensive mindset.

“It can become contagious,” Miller said.

The combination of McConnell and Johnson should be, by far, the best defensive backcourt Miller has had with the Wildcats. And then the Cats have enviable length at the forward positions and a 7-footer, Kaleb Tarczewski, at the rim. It all looks good on paper.

“Nick is one of the best defenders I ever played with,” McConnell said. “We all just go all out, and that’s what makes good defenders.

“I just think defensively we can guard at every position. We’re athletic. Some of us are longer. We can guard at every position; that’s what makes us so lethal on defense.”

As last season ended with a 73-70 loss to Ohio State in the Sweet 16, the Wildcats compared McConnell to the Buckeyes’ pass-first point guard/defensive pest Aaron Craft based on what they had seen every day in practice.

“I obviously have a lot of respect for Aaron Craft and what he does, but I’m not trying to be like any other player,” McConnell said. “I’m just trying to be the next great guard here.”

A year of sitting out after his transfer only helps. We’ll get a preview as McConnell and the Cats take to the court for the Red-Blue Game at McKale Center on Saturday.

“I didn’t realize how much a year could make a difference when you weren’t playing,” he said. “Now, I get to see that my game is totally improved in every aspect.”

Offense and defense.

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