Unsung hero fuels Arizona’s bid for Arlington

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West Regional finals

Arizona vs. Wisconsin

7:49 p.m. Saturday TV: TBS

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T.J. McConnell isn’t too concerned about whether his name is among the top point guards in the country.

It hasn’t been … yet.

Arizona’s junior point guard isn’t mentioned in the same group as Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart, Syracuse’s Tyler Ennis and Ohio State’s Aaron Craft.

But should it be?

“Most definitely,” sophomore guard Gabe York said. “What T.J. does goes unnoticed. The way he plays, the intensity he brings to the games, it’s remarkable the way he can play for 40 minutes and hold himself to such a high standard.”

Maybe McConnell has been underappreciated because Arizona plays in late games on the West Coast when most of the country is asleep. Or maybe it’s because freshman sensation Aaron Gordon draws most of the headlines and highlights for the Wildcats.

But McConnell, a transfer from Duquesne, is the heart and soul of the Wildcats, who are one step away from the Final Four.

Top-seeded Arizona takes on No. 2 Wisconsin on Saturday night in the West Regional final and, should the Wildcats win, it’s a safe bet McConnell would have played an important role in it.

“He’s the engine that makes us go,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said.

McConnell is a pass-first, defensive-minded point guard, something that Miller hasn’t had in his first five years with the Wildcats. Last year, for instance, the Wildcats were knocked out in the Sweet 16 behind shoot-first point guard Mark Lyons, who averaged 15.6 points.

McConnell averages only half as many points, 8.4, but his contributions generally don’t show up in the box score.

In the Sweet 16 game against San Diego State, McConnell couldn’t have picked a better time for his lone steal of the game. He stripped the ball loose from SDSU’s Winston Shepard with 2:46 left, secured the ball by diving to the floor, tossed it to York, who then found an open Nick Johnson for an easy layup.

That made it a two-possession game, as the Wildcats took a 56-51 lead and held on the rest of the way.

“Great play by T.J.,” Johnson said. “Great hustle play to get his hand in there, dive on the floor and get the ball … just a great presence of mind.”

It wasn’t the only thing McConnell did. He made his lone 3-point attempt midway through the first half to tie the game 17-17, finished 5 for 9 from the field and had three assists.

McConnell has taken his game to another level the past two rounds against SDSU and Gonzaga. He’s combined for nine assists to two turnovers, has four steals and has scored in double figures by shooting 52.9 percent from the field.

McConnell knows the challenge that lies ahead of him to keep it going. The Badgers have a solid backcourt, as well, behind junior point guard Traevon Jackson.

Jackson scored only seven points with five assists against Baylor, but had averaged nearly 15 points in the previous three games.

“Pretty much have to have an extremely solid night on Jackson for us to be successful,” McConnell said.

The same can be said for Wisconsin and how the Badgers handle McConnell. There’s no question he’s getting more attention, and rightfully so, the deeper Arizona gets in the tournament, but he could not care less.

The son of a high school basketball coach understands that isn’t too important, especially at this time of year.

“I’m just here to help my team win,” McConnell said. “If I get noticed, that’s great. If not, I’m still going to do whatever I can to help my team win. We let our play do the talking on the floor.”

Drew Davison, 817-390-7760 Twitter: @drewdavison

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