Point guard T.J. McConnell made his intentions clear before the season when he changed his Twitter handle to “iPass4Zona.”
Not play. Not shoot. Not score.
And, oh, has he passed. Like a quarterback who can make all the throws, McConnell can make all the passes. Half-court alley-oops. Bounce passes in transition. Lobs to the post. Skips. No-look wrap-arounds. Wherever there’s a hint of an open man, McConnell can imagine the geometry needed to get him the ball.
Lately, though, he’s been hearing something other than a pass-first message: Shoot the dang ball.
Sunday night, he did.
McConnell, a junior transfer from Duquesne, tied his career-high with five 3-pointers as top-ranked Arizona pulled away to beat USC 73-53, furthering his stature as a full-service point guard and the Wildcats’ most indispensable player.
“The last couple of days, we’ve just been telling him to shoot the basketball,” assistant coach Book Richardson said on the 1290-AM (KCUB) postgame show.
“What happens is he’s so unselfish to a flaw and he gets so caught up in getting everyone else going. Today, we needed him to score. He was a consummate point guard — he did what his team needed for us to win.”
The Arizona coaches weren’t the only ones telling McConnell to shoot. USC was basically taunting him, telling each other on defense, “Make him shoot.”
“I actually heard them say that,” McConnell told reporters after the game. “So I decided to just keep shooting.”
He’s more than capable.
McConnell shot 40.2 percent from 3-point range as a freshman at Duquesne (39 of 97) and followed up by hitting 43.2 percent (38 of 88) as a sophomore. Until Sunday night, however, this season’s make-him-shoot strategy seemed sound because McConnell was neither much looking for his shot nor making a reasonable percentage from behind the arc.
He was 8 of 30 (26.7 percent) heading into the USC game.
He was 5 of 7 against the Trojans, finishing with a season-high 19 points.
T.J. … Trusty Jumper.
“If they don’t think I can shoot I’m going to try and prove them wrong,” McConnell said.
For one night at least, he was a zone-buster, proving the Trojans wrong. More opportunities await. The Wildcats will see plenty more zone defense against their talented front line. Somebody for Arizona has to counter by being hot from the outside. Nick Johnson? Gabe York? McConnell?
With one game, McConnell went from shooting 26.7 percent from 3-point range to 35.1 percent.
If he duplicates what he did at USC in Thursday’s home game against Arizona State, he will be right at his percentages from his Duquesne days. He doesn’t need to be a prolific 3-point shooter; he just needs to be a threat when the other team says, “Make him shoot.”
For opponents, that still might be preferable to “Make him pass.”
After hitting all three of his 3-point attempts in the first half against USC, McConnell used his passing to help Arizona extend its three-point halftime lead to 10 by the second media timeout.
He hit Kaleb Tarczewski with a bounce pass for a dunk, stole an offensive rebound from Nikola Jovanovic and hit Johnson in transition for a 3-pointer, and he lobbed a pass at the rim for Aaron Gordon, who flushed his obligatory once-a-game reverse alley-oop dunk.
At 6.3 assists per game, there’s little doubt McConnell will have the best season mark at Arizona since Mustafa Shakur averaged 6.9 in the 2006-07 season. Shakur was not quite at a 2:1 assists-to-turnover ratio that season. McConnell is sitting at 3:1.
That’s one of the reasons Arizona excels late in games and is 17-0.
McConnell, combining a bulldog’s mentality as a leader and an artist’s flourish with the basketball in his hands, never appears flustered. That’s much like his head coach, Sean Miller, was at Pitt more than two decades ago.
Arizona hopes McConnell ends up like Miller in one more way.
Miller shot at least 40 percent from 3-point range in each of his four college seasons.
McConnell, after Sunday’s game, finally seems headed in that direction this season.
“I think the way you saw him shoot the ball,” Miller said after the USC game, “is more of what he’s capable of.”