Arizona's National Title Hopes Lie in the Very Capable Hands of T.J. McConnell

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Arizona's National Title Hopes Lie in the Very Capable Hands of T.J. McConnell
Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports
T.J. McConnell (No. 4) is the setup man for a talented group of Wildcats that have climbed to No. 1 in the polls.

Arizona is the No. 1 team in the nation in both polls right now, a legitimate national title contender, and Sean Miller has a starting lineup with four NBA prospects and another coming off the bench. One of those pros, Aaron Gordon, will probably be a lottery pick this year.

And get this: The key to Arizona's title hopes is a guy who started his career at Duquesne.

T.J. McConnell is the first true point guard Miller has had since he took over in Tucson four years ago, and he's transformed the Arizona offense.

Al Bello/Getty Images
T.J. McConnell attempts to pass to big man Kaleb Tarczewski in the preseason NIT final at Madison Square Garden.

In Miller's first four seasons, the Wildcats never had a team anyone really considered a national title threat. Before this year, Miller's second team was his best because of the talent of Derrick Williams, who was a second-team All-American and one of the most efficient scorers in the country.

But Williams would have had to reenact "Danny Manning and the Miracles" for the 'Cats to win the title. (He was close. Arizona ended up losing in the Elite Eight by two to Connecticut, the eventual champs.)

When you throw perception out the window, this Arizona team is not off to any better start than last year's team that ended up losing in the Sweet 16. A year ago, the Wildcats also won their first nine games and check out the efficiency numbers for that team (through nine games) compared to this year.

Arizona's Efficiency Through Nine Games: 2012-13 vs. 2013-14
Off. Efficiency Def. Efficiency
Last year's Wildcats 116.4 88.7
This year's Wildcats 116.8 89.0

kenpom.com

You will not find a team with more identical numbers through nine games. So is this team on the same path?

I don't think so, and the voters who do the rankings don't seem to either. A year ago at this time, Arizona was ranked eighth in both polls.

The reason for such a belief has everything to do with McConnell, and this is not a slight to his predecessor, Mark Lyons. Lyons was a really good scoring guard, a way more talented scorer than McConnell, but the 'Cats were only going to go as far as Lyons could take them. Just like they were only going to go as far as Williams could take them in Miller's second year.

This group can afford a bad night from any of its stars—and yes, it has multiple stars—because McConnell is going to spread the wealth around every night.

His impact is already evident when you look at how Arizona's key returning guys are shooting the ball compared to last year.

Arizona's Returnees Shooting Numbers 2012-13 vs. 2013-14
Eff. FG% 12-13 Eff. FG% 13-14
Nick Johnson 51.6 57.7
Brandon Ashley 53.4 62.9
Kaleb Tarczewski 53.8 56.4
Gabe York 53.1 55.3

kenpom.com

Miller could not have picked a better time to find a true point guard, because this is the most diverse roster he's had.

Every player in Miller's rotation is capable of scoring 15 points-plus on any given night. Five different Wildcats (Gordon, Brandon Ashley, Kaleb Tarczewski, Gabe York and Nick Johnson) have scored at least 15 points in a game this year and two others (McConnell and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson) have scored at least 13.

At times in Arizona's offense last season, it felt like every man for himself. This season, the Wildcats are showing great patience, and it's evident they trust McConnell to get them their shots.

"He knows how to play the game," Miller told Bruce Pascoe of the Arizona Daily Star recently. "He takes what the defense gives. He always starts with a pass-first mentality, trying to get his teammates involved, and he's clever. He can recognize defenses, understands time and score (situations), and makes the game easier for everybody."

Miller's motion offense has always been about spreading the ball around, but until this season, it was more about the offense making it that way than the point guard.

With McConnell, the 'Cats are spreading the floor around him and letting him create for them. Much like an NBA coach, Miller is putting his trust in McConnell by setting him a lot of ball screens and then allowing McConnell to read how the defense reacts.

Lyons got his share of ball screens as well, but he was usually looking to score. In pick-and-roll situations last season, Lyons gave up the ball 43.1 percent of the ball, per Synergy Sports Technology (subscription required). McConnell is passing 69.7 percent of the time in pick-and-rolls, per Synergy.

What makes Arizona extremely hard to guard in these situations is that not only is McConnell so adept at making the right read, the defense has to be ready for several different outcomes when McConnell is coming off a ball screen.

McConnell is a 40.9 percent three-point shooter for his career, although the one area where he has struggled this year is shooting off the bounce. But since defenses respect his shot, and his man typically attempts to fight over or through the screen and not under, McConnell is often able to get his feet into the paint.

This is where McConnell is most dangerous because of his vision. Once McConnell gets into the paint, defenses are often rotating to recover, and this is when York or Johnson are often open on the perimeter.

ESPN screen shot

It's not just the kick-outs that defenses have to worry about when McConnell gets into the middle of the defense off pick-and-rolls. Arizona also will sneak a cutter to the basket from the wing or baseline when all eyes are focused on McConnell.

In this screen shot below, Ashley has set a back screen on Johnson's man away from the ball, and McConnell delivered a bounce pass to Johnson right in stride for a layup. The help defender is focused on McConnell and has no idea a cutter is sneaking behind him. 

ESPN screen shot

This is a wrinkle that was rarely utilized by Lyons. He found a cutter out of the pick-and-roll only nine times last season, per Synergy. McConnell has made that pass 15 times already this season.

"It's ridiculous, his court vision," York told Pascoe. "We've all told him that, and he knows how great of a point guard he is."

Arizona also has two pick-and-pop big guys in Gordon and Ashley. When Ashley sets a screen, he'll often set up behind the three-point line, especially if his man tries hedge the screen or double McConnell, as Duke does here:

ESPN screen shot
Notice how McConnell pulls the double-team (circled) far enough away from Ashley to give him plenty of time to shoot before the defense can recover.

 

These are all hard actions to guard, and McConnell does a great job of getting the ball to the open man on time.

What has to be scary to the Pac-12 and the other elite teams in the country is that Arizona's offense should get better as McConnell's teammates get used to playing with him and get used to expanded roles. Johnson, Ashley, Tarczewski and York are all taking more shots than they did last year.

And while Gordon's energy, rebounding and defense have been major pluses, he is not finishing as well as expected. Gordon is making only 47.9 percent of his twos. He's better than that, and he'll get better as he continues to get more comfortable playing on the perimeter.

The beauty of these 'Cats is that Gordon does not need to put up superstar numbers for this team to compete a title. They still rely a lot on one guy. He just happens to be the one doing the passing.

 

Follow C.J. on Twitter @cjmoore4.

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