On the morning of April 2, at a press conference before high school basketball’s most prestigious all-star game, Aaron Gordon announced his commitment to the Arizona Wildcats.
The pledge ended more than a year of speculation on his landing spot and gained national attention. It also catapulted Arizona’s recruiting class from 25th to fifth in the ESPN rankings and instantly made the Wildcats a contender in 2013-14.
If the excitement after Gordon’s commitment wasn’t enough, then they actually played the game. In a sea of incredible players at the McDonald’s All-American showcase, Gordon was the best player on the court. Not only did he dunk a lot (he had nine dunks) on his way to a game-high 24 points and eight rebounds, he played great defense, handled the ball with impressive control and out-motored everyone else in the contest.
At the age of 17 and with a celestial ceiling, he is without question he is the most talented recruit ever to come to Arizona.
A year earlier, away from the cameras and fanfare, another player decided to play basketball for the University of Arizona. During this commitment there was no noise, no hubbub, no announcement at a McDonald’s All-American game press conference.
Both commitments are big for Arizona basketball. But the addition of McConnell is more important.
This reality can be explained best by looking at the progress over the last two seasons. In 2011-12, Arizona finished a disappointing 23-12 and lost at home in the first round of the National Invitational Tournament to Bucknell. The Wildcats' two biggest deficiencies were size and point guard play.
Sean Miller fixed the size issue by getting a huge front line with his 2012 recruiting class. Just as important, Mark Lyons, a proven combo guard, came in to run the point. The team improved leaps and bounds in skill and talent, but more importantly, the Wildcats turned their biggest weakness into a strength.
These changes resulted in a serious improvement. The Wildcats had a great regular season where they raced off to a 14-0 start and beat several top-25 squads. In the post season they advanced to the Sweet 16 and were within a couple shots of moving on to the Elite Eight.
Just as the 2011-12 team had serious flaws, so did this latest version of Arizona basketball. The team had issues on both sides of the ball.
Offensively it was turnovers and overall decision-making that killed the Wildcats time in and time out. In almost every game, including Ohio State, the Wildcats would start to play great, but then senseless plays would allow the opposing team to stay in the game.
A couple bad shots here, a few more turnovers there, and the Wildcats never were able to reach their true potential. And while they were good enough to overcome this in most instances, it caught up to them against the better competition.
The reason for this was leadership on the court. And while leaders can come from any position on the floor, the most impactful leader is the one who has the ball in his hands every possession: the point guard.
Although Mark Lyons was a huge improvement over Josiah Turner, his play was a microcosm of the Wildcats' offensive season.
In nearly every game he was both brilliant and infuriatingly mindless. He might make a long three, but then he'd throw the ball away on the next possession. He may get a couple of foul shots by aggressively slashing to the hoop, but then he would take a 30-footer early in the shot clock on the next possession. His play was exciting but erratic.
And when the senior leader plays this way, the rest of the team is more likely to do so. The way Lyons played rubbed off on the rest of the team. Bad decisions and turnovers became a norm. It spread throughout the season and by the end of the year, it was too late to adjust.
Additionally, there were no checks and balances. Normally when a player takes a bad shot or poor decision, the leader of the team lets him know about it (think Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson). But when the team's leader is also its poorest decision-maker, there is no such internal check. Lyons had no credibility to do such a thing. In the end, Arizona had multiple personalities on the offensive side of the floor, and Lyons was the biggest reason why.
The defensive woes can be attributed to a focus and effort. After playing great defense to start the season, all of a sudden it stopped. Halfway through the year, the Wildcats were atrocious at stopping the other team. When explaining why, Miller said, “It’s all effort. One hundred percent.”
Rarely were the Wildcats focused and intense for a full 35-second shot-clock and never for a full 40-minute game. The problem improved towards the end of the year, but again it was too little too late.
Lastly, the Wildcats lineup is stacked at all the positions except at point guard. While Lyons had his faults, he was also a All-Pac-12 player and scored 15 points per game. Now he is gone and the Wildcats have Jordin Mayes and no backup. This leaves a gaping hole in an otherwise star studded lineup.
Looking forward to the coming season, the player who can most precisely addresses these problem areas is the most important addition to the team.
And that player is T.J. McConnell.
While Gordon brings size, length, firepower and ridiculous athleticism to the team, Arizona is already chocked full of all of that. The Wildcats have so much size and length that good players like Angelo Chol will be hard pressed to get any meaningful minutes at all
They have so much athleticism that games early in the season are going to look like dunk contests. While Gordon makes Arizona much better, he adds in areas already covered. He adds strength to strength.
McConnell, on the other hand, while nowhere near the talent of Gordon, is perfectly built to improve the Wildcats' biggest weaknesses.
With McConnell at point, no longer will the offense be erratic and mindless. As a sophomore he was third in the Atlantic 10 with 5.5 assists per game, and he led the league in assist-to-turnover ratio. With McConnell distributing the ball, the offense will be fluid, seamless and, above all, intelligent.
On the defensive side of the ball, energy is key. This is especially true with Miller’s pack-line. So Gordon’s intensity will be important and helpful. But in Miller’s system, the most important player on the court is the man applying the ball pressure.
Guess who that will be most often? T.J. McConnell. And he is up for the job. He has been described as Arizona’s version of Aaron Craft. In his last year at Duquesne, he was third in the nation (the NATION) in steals and made the A-10’s All-Defensive team. He is an absolute pest on the ball.
Not only will he be the point man for Miller’s defense, but his ball hawking pressure is going to inspire the rest of the team. With relentless pressure out front and motor revved high at all times, it will be hard for the rest of the team to fall behind in defensive effort. His presence alone turns Arizona into a great defensive team.
Aaron Gordon is the best recruit in the history of Arizona basketball and might end up being one its best players. But T.J. McConnell makes the Wildcats significantly better in the areas they need the most improvement. He takes Arizona’s biggest weaknesses and turns them into strengths. It is he, not Aaron Gordon, who is the most important addition to the 2013-14 Arizona Wildcats team.