T.J. McConnell

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No. 2 Arizona, Sean Miller’s quest to reach Final Four once again falls short

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LOS ANGELES — In his last seven seasons as a head coach, Sean Miller has led his teams to four Elite Eight appearances. The last three of those came at Arizona. And in each of those games, Miller has seen his teams fall just short of the Final Four, the fourth of those losses being an 85-78 loss to No. 1 Wisconsin in the West regional final Saturday night.

The loss came as a result of the Badgers shooting incredibly well from the field in the second half, making 15 of their 19 field goal attempts and also shooting 10-for-12 from beyond the arc. One of the nation’s best defensive teams was armed with an elite stopper in Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, but not having a second meant that either Sam Dekker (20 second-half points) or Frank Kaminsky (15 of his 29 were scored in the second half) had an advantage depending upon who wasn’t being defended by Hollis-Jefferson.

But those numbers won’t matter much to the crowd that rushes to affix the label of “best active coach to have yet to reach the Final Four” to whichever high-level coach seems deserving of that distinction. That’s something Miller will have to manage this offseason, as a team that entered Saturday’s game having won 14 straight and had the look of one that could at the very least challenge undefeated Kentucky, if not beat the Wildcats in the Final Four fell short of its goal.

Yet in the aftermath of the loss, none of that concerned Miller, who looked to ensure that what his group has accomplished over the last two seasons was not ignored.

“With the way the world is today, people will jump all over us for losing in the Elite Eight, and I just want to protect our players,” Miller noted. “Because if you’re T.J. McConnell and you’ve won 69 games in two years and you never lost a home game and you’ve gone to back-to-back Elite Eights, no kid should walk out of here with anything other than their head held high.”

In the aftermath of Thursday’s Sweet 16 victory over No. 6 Xavier, the recurring theme for the Arizona players was their desire to take Miller to his first Final Four, with McConnell leading the way. The heart and soul of this group, McConnell’s connection with Miller goes well beyond the moment he decided to transfer to Arizona after spending two seasons at Duquesne. Both hail from western Pennsylvania, the point guard-playing sons of famed high school coaches, and McConnell wanted nothing more than to repay the coach for his faith in him with an opportunity to win a national title.

And when that dream came to an end, with all involved coming to that realization in the moments after Sam Dekker knocked down a dagger of a three-pointer to give the Badgers an eight-point lead with 17 seconds remaining, an emotional McConnell shared an embrace with his head coach before working his way down the bench.

“I just came off the floor and apologized that I couldn’t get him to a Final Four,” McConnell said of the exchange. “That guy right there is like my dad, so I just felt down that I couldn’t get him there.”

Arizona fell short Saturday despite putting forth one of their better offensive showings of the season, shooting 55.8 percent from the field and scoring 38 points in the paint. The Wildcats got off to a slow start, with Brandon Ashley picking up two quick fouls, before hitting their stride and finishing the first half with a three-point lead. With Frank Kaminsky being forced into tough shots and the rest of the Badgers having their own issues, Arizona just needed one more half of solid defense in order to earn their first Final Four trip since 2001.

Arizona was unable to put it all together, but that spoke more to what Wisconsin was able to do as opposed to what the Wildcats neglected to. Kaminsky’s three-pointer to open the second stanza began a barrage that most wouldn’t believe had they not seen it with their own eyes, with the Badgers making both open and challenged shots alike.

“Their offensive execution and their ability to make shots in the second half, it was like a video game,” Miller said. “I’d like to blame our players or we weren’t playing hard. Let me just tell you, Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky, they’re really good. And their offense is the No. 1 offense in the nation, and no team has done what they did to us in the second half.”

Regardless of what those of us on the outside say about who should win in the NCAA tournament, the nature of the beast is that the event is one of the ultimate lotteries in sports. There’s no Game 2 as there is in a best-of-7 series; 40 minutes (or more) will determine the way in which a team’s season comes to an end. And whether it’s fair or not, the NCAA tournament serves as the ultimate judge of players, coaches, programs and conferences. In the case of Arizona, a second consecutive season has come to an end in heartbreaking fashion.

And for Miller, the defeat means that he’ll enter another season with a label previously owned by the likes of Jim Calhoun and Bill Self.

“I come back to the point that it’s a process. It’s a long journey. It’s not a single moment,” Miller noted. “It’s both a long process in terms of what you do in a year. We started in early October when school began, and we’ve worked, and a lot of great things happened this year for our team.

“And over the last couple of years, a lot of great things have happened for our program. And over the last seven years for me, a lot of great things have happened with the teams I’ve coached.”

Barring an early retirement, Sean Miller is going to get to a Final Four, likely more than one. He’s too good and too young not to.

And given the disappointments he’s dealt with over the course of the last seven years, when he finally does break through, it will be that much sweeter. Hey, maybe he’ll even follow in the footsteps of Calhoun and Self and win a title the first time he gets to the season’s final weekend.

But that’s not going to lessen the disappointment of another Elite 8 loss.

Back at the point where last season ended, No. 2 Arizona looks to end its Final Four drought

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LOS ANGELES — The NCAA tournament, while entertaining, can also be a painful experience. While some teams are eliminated in short order, others find themselves tantalizingly close to their goal of reaching the Final Four only to have that dream shattered with the defeat serving as motivation for the following season.

For the members of this year’s Arizona squad that played last season, the date March 29, 2014 is one that brings back vivid memories of what could have been. The top seed in the West region, the Wildcats played an absolute thriller with No. 2 Wisconsin in the regional final in Anaheim. Sean Miller’s team fell short of its goal of reaching the Final Four, losing by a point in overtime.

With that result came a number of questions, focusing on the impact that the absence of Brandon Ashley had on the team offensively as well as the question of when Miller would be able to get his program over the hump. That “hump” is getting to the sport’s final weekend, with the Final Four being an event that can change the narrative that hovers over a coach and his program.

With Arizona’s last Final Four appearance coming in 2001 and Miller yet to lead a team that far in his ten-plus seasons as a head coach, it’s seen as one of the final frontiers for both coach and program. While there’s definitely motivation to exceed last season’s run, there’s also the need to acknowledge the fact that this program has reached the Sweet 16 in each of the last three seasons and Saturday’s rematch will be Arizona’s second consecutive Elite Eight appearance.

“Of course it’s motivation to see if you can get back to this level,” Miller said after the Wildcats beat No. 6 Xavier Thursday night. “Very seldom are you right there in an Elite Eight game that you lose in overtime and then the next year you’re back, let alone playing the same team. So there is some uniqueness to that.

“But I think a lot of our players were motivated this off-season to come back and make a run at this. And here we are, and that’s really to our credit. As you know, especially in this tournament, that is not an easy thing to accomplish.”

Yet in this era, simply getting to the doorstep of the Final Four isn’t enough regardless of how difficult (or unpredictable) the NCAA tournament can be. Arizona hasn’t reached the Final Four since 2001, and this current stretch represents the longest since Lute Olson led the Wildcats to their first Final Four in 1988.

The hopes and expectations heaped upon elite programs can be tough for some players and coaches to bear. But in the case of Arizona they’re looking to do their best to simply focus on the task at hand, as opposed to what it could mean to the history books and the way in which their program is presently viewed.

“Obviously, it’s a big game to return to the Elite Eight and play the exact same opponent as we did last year and come up short,” senior point guard T.J. McConnell said Thursday night. “But we’re going to take it as any game like we would be playing anyone else. It doesn’t matter if we’re playing Wisconsin or if we were playing North Carolina, we’d game plan the same, and it happened to be Wisconsin.

“So we’re not making this game any bigger than it needs to be.”

That approach is one reason why the Wildcats have lost just three games on the season, with talent and depth being others. Last year’s group, especially once Ashley went down in early February, didn’t have as many options offensively and they didn’t have an answer when it came to defending Frank Kaminsky either. Arizona shot just 38.3 percent from two in the one-point loss, with their top three players in regards to shot attempts in that game all struggling to score inside of the arc.

Arizona’s improved its shooting from both inside of the arc and from the foul line this season, and they’ll need to produce a high-level game on that end of the floor against Wisconsin. Of greater importance for the Wildcats will be the way in which they defend Kaminsky, who singed them for 28 points and 11 rebounds (seven offensive) in Anaheim. Kaminsky was able to take advantage of matchups with both Aaron Gordon (in the post) and Kaleb Tarczewski (on the perimeter) that night, and he represents the biggest matchup issue for Arizona in the rematch as well.

But this is a group that is better equipped for that particular challenge, with Ashley healthy and the versatile Rondae Hollis-Jefferson developing into one of the nation’s best and most versatile defenders. Both Arizona and Wisconsin have undergone changes to their respective rotations, with Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes becoming more integral figures for the Badgers and Stanley Johnson giving the Wildcats some more offense on the wing.

Clearly both teams have been motivated by the way in which their respective seasons came to an end. However in the case of Arizona, there’s also the added burden of ending a streak that’s been active since 2001. And while those of us on the outside remain fascinated by the “best coach to have not reached the Final Four” label, for Miller it’s simply a matter of continuing to knock on the door in hopes of it eventually opening.

“Usually you have to knock at the door a few times before you break it down,” Miller said earlier this week. “We’ll see if this is our year. But we have that opportunity. What we’re trying to do is play our best right now. If we do that, based on our season and the team we have, I think we have a chance to advance.”

T.J. McConnell, Gabe York lead No. 2 Arizona past No. 10 Ohio State

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Entering Saturday’s Round of 32 matchup between No. 2 Arizona and No. 10 Ohio State, most of the attention was focused on the two elite freshmen (Arizona’s Stanley Johnson and Ohio State’s D’Angelo Russell) and the fact that Russell was expected to see a lot of one of the nation’s top defenders in Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. But as the game played out one thing became clear: Arizona senior point guard T.J. McConnell was the best player on the floor in Portland.

While his name may not be tossed around as frequently by NBA scouts as the three players above, McConnell is an incredibly important piece for Sean Miller’s Wildcats. And in their 73-58 win over the Buckeyes, thus earning a third straight Sweet 16 appearance, the Pittsburgh native’s fingerprints were all over the game.

McConnell finished with 19 points, six rebounds, six assists and five steals, becoming the first Pac-12 player since Jason Kidd in 1993 to post a line of at least 15 points, five rebounds, five assists and five steals in an NCAA tournament game. He’s been the leader all season for Arizona, and when they struggled to crack Ohio State’s matchup zone in the first half McConnell accounted for eight points to help the Wildcats take a one-point lead into the half.

In the second half another Arizona guard, junior Gabe York, stepped forward and the Wildcats were able to pull away as a result. York scored 16 of his 19 points in the second half, shooting 4-for-7 from three (he made five for the game), and Ohio State’s inability to find him proved to be their downfall.

York was responsible for five of Arizona’s seven three-pointers, and that was a critical contribution considering the fact that the Wildcats shot a slightly higher percentage from three (36.8 percent) than from two (36.4 percent). The combination of York, McConnell, 20 points off of 12 Ohio State turnovers and a commanding performance on the boards proved to be too much for Thad Matta’s team to overcome.

And that doesn’t even take into consideration the rough evening Russell had shooting the basketball.

Arizona threw multiple players (mainly Hollis-Jefferson and McConnell) at Russell and he was unable to get anything going, finishing with nine points, seven rebounds and six assists while shooting 3-for-19 from the field. Seniors Sam Thompson (18 points) and Shannon Scott (ten) reached double figures, but with their best scorer kept in check Ohio State couldn’t keep up once Arizona managed to crack the zone.

Next up for Arizona is either No. 6 Xavier, Miller’s last employer before he took the Arizona job in 2009, or No. 14 Georgia State Thursday night in Los Angeles.

NBCSports.com’s College Basketball All-Americans

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Frank Kaminsky (left, AP Photo), Jahlil Okafor (center, AP Photo) and Willie Cauley-Stein (right, UK Athletics)

NBCSPORTS.COM’S FIRST TEAM ALL-AMERICANS

Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin (18.4 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 2.6 apg, 41.0% 3PT)

Kaminsky has greatly outperformed expectations he had entering the season, even though he was a preseason all-american pick. He’s been sensational, leading the Badgers in scoring, rebounding, assists, blocks and steals. Not bad for a guy that averaged 10 minutes as a sophomore.

Jahlil Okafor, Duke (17.6 ppg, 9.2 rpg)

Okafor is an easy pick as well, as he was the most dominating offensive force in the country this season. To get an idea of just how good he can be, think about this: He’s not just a poor defender, he can be downright awful at times, and yet he’s going to finish the season as a consensus first team all-american and the runner-up to Kaminsky in the Player of the Year voting. Not bad.

D’Angelo Russell, Ohio State (19.2 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 5.2 apg)

If Kaminsky has been the nation’s best player and Okafor has been the most dominating offensive force, than Russell has to be the nation’s most entertaining player. He can take over a game with his ability to score, and he throws some absurd passes in transition. Can he be this year’s Shabazz Napier in the NCAA tournament?

Jerian Grant, Notre Dame (16.8 ppg, 6.7 apg)

The Irish have no business being a top ten team this season, but they are because Grant has been incredible. Notre Dame has one of the most potent offensive attacks in the country, and it all centers around Grant’s ability to make plays off the dribble and in ball-screen actions. He’s better than anyone else in the country at making his teammate’s better.

Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky (8.9 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 1.6 bpg)

Cauley-Stein’s numbers don’t measure up to anyone else on the first team, but what he does best doesn’t necessarily show up in the scorebook. The Wildcats are downright dominant on the defensive end of the floor, and Cauley-Stein is the engine that drives them. He’s the best perimeter and the best interior defender in the country all at the same time.

NBCSPORTS.COM’S SECOND TEAM ALL-AMERICANS

  • Delon Wright, Utah (14.3 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 5.3 apg, 2.1 spg): Wright did so much for Utah this season, and while his numbers were impressive, it was his defense and ability to understand his strengths offensively that were most important to the Utes.
  • Kris Dunn, Providence (15.5 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 7.4 apg): The only reason Dunn isn’t in the conversation for National Player of the Year is that he turns the ball over too much. He was completely dominant at times this season.
  • Buddy Hield, Oklahoma (17.4 ppg, 5.5 rpg): Hield has a rep for being one of the nation’s best defenders, dating back to his freshman season. Now he’s also one of the best wing scorers.
  • Rico Gathers, Baylor (11.6 ppg, 11.7 rpg): Gathers is the nation’s best rebounder, an improving scorer on the block and a critical component for arguably the nation’s most surprising team.
  • Rakeem Christmas, Syracuse (17.5 ppg, 9.1 rpg, 2.5 bpg): He won’t get to showcase his ability this March, but there was not a more improved player in the country than Christmas this season.

NBCSPORTS.COM’S THIRD TEAM ALL-AMERICANS

  • T.J. McConnell, Arizona (9.6 ppg, 6.3 apg, 2.1 spg): McConnell’s numbers are nowhere near as impressive as the other lead guards here, but if you watched Arizona play over the last two months, you understand just how important he was to that team’s success.
  • Melo Trimble, Maryland (16.1 ppg, 3.1 apg): Maryland is ranked 31st in KenPom. Yet, they’re a top ten team that’s going to be a top four seed because they’re 11-0 in games decided by six points or less. Trimble is their ‘closer’. He earned this spot.
  • Justin Anderson, Virginia (13.4 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 48.5% 3PT): Anderson was in the mix for first team all-american when he broke his finger. He deserves recognition despite missing time.
  • Bobby Portis, Arkansas (17.8 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 1.5 bpg): I was called out by an Arkansas assistant coach for having Bobby Portis ranked 62nd in our top 100 players list in the preseason. That coach was right.
  • Seth Tuttle, Northern Iowa (15.3 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 3.3 apg): I’m fully on the Tuttle bandwagon. He’s a low-post scorer with three point range, the ability to put the ball on the floor and terrific vision. He’s Frank Kaminsky 2.0.

Kaleb Tarczewski produces another quality outing as No. 7 Arizona beats No. 13 Utah

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Saturday night’s matchup with No. 7 Arizona represented quite the opportunity for No. 13 Utah. Not only could the Runnin’ Utes avenge their blowout loss in Tucson last month, but they could also pull into a tie for first place in the Pac-12 with two games left to play. And in a game that was tight throughout, it was Arizona that was able to make those crucial plays down the stretch.

The Wildcats finished the game on an 8-0 run, winning 63-57 and clinching at least a share of the the Pac-12 regular season title. Arizona shot just 33.3% from the field, but they limited Utah to 30.9% shooting and dominated the boards in the second half. The Wildcats managed to rebound half of its missed shots in the game’s final 20 minutes, with one key play being a Gabe York put back of his own missed free throw with 1:38 remaining.

His three points (York made the first free throw) during that sequence gave Arizona a lead they would not relinquish, as Sean Miller’s team strung together multiple stops and sealed things at the foul line.

Just as good for Arizona, especially when looking forward to even bigger games in March, was the play of junior center Kaleb Tarczewski. The 7-footer entered the game playing his best basketball of the season, and that remained the case in Salt Lake City. Tarczewski won his individual matchup with Utah freshman center Jakob Poeltl, accounting for 13 points and six rebounds in 33 minutes of action. And over the last five games Tarczewski is averaging 12.8 points and 6.2 rebounds per game.

By comparison, Poeltl played just 12 minutes due to foul trouble and tallied four points and five rebounds before fouling out. And in a game of this magnitude, Utah could not afford to have one of the most important players struggle on both ends of the floor.

Tarczewski, who hit a significant rough patch earlier in conference play, as how scored in double figures in four of his last five games. With Stanley Johnson shooting just 3-for-19 from the field (he did finish with 12 points and 11 rebounds), and fellow starters T.J. McConnell (five rebounds and five assists) and Brandon Ashley scoring seven points apiece, Arizona needed the contributions of Tarczewski and York (12 points).

As they have on multiple occasions in recent games those two delivered, resulting in the Wildcats picking up what is one of the most impressive road wins in college basketball this season.

Delon Wright led Utah with 17 points, five rebounds and five assists, but the ball didn’t wind up in his hands often enough down the stretch. Moving forward, Utah’s Pac-12 Player of the Year candidate will have to be even more influential as the games become even bigger than Saturday night’s was. Utah fought hard for 40 minutes, displaying the staying power they did not show in the first meeting.

But it still wasn’t enough, as Arizona remained composed and found a way take control of the game in crunch time.

Player of the Year Power Rankings: Why Jerian Grant, Kyle Wiltjer need more attention

Frank Kaminsky, David Rivers, Walter Pitchford
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1. Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin: A quick update on Kaminsky’s potentially historic season. Wisconsin has slid back a bit in recent weeks and is now on pace to be just the fourth most efficient offense in the KenPom era (2002-2015). Kaminsky is still putting up ridiculous numbers, however, with an offensive rating of 126.3 while using 27.5 percent of Wisconsin’s possessions when he’s on the floor.

2. Jahlil Okafor, Duke: I’ve said numerous times in this space that Okafor has the offensive skill set to one day become an all-time great big man. Here are three reasons why:

That’s a 6-foot-11, 270 pound 19-year old making those moves. Are you kidding me?

3. Jerian Grant, Notre Dame: The Irish are 24-4 on the season and are going to finish the season as a top four team in the ACC despite having a defense ranked 165th in adjusted efficiency, according to KenPom, and playing almost half of every game with a lineup that uses 6-foot-5 Bonzie Colson as the center. It’s incredible how much better Grant makes everyone on that team. He’s still not getting enough attenion, so I’m just going to leave this right here.

4. D’Angelo Russell, Ohio State: Russell has not been great in four of his last five games, and our Scott Phillips does a good job of breaking that down right here.

5. Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky: Josh Richardson is Tennessee’s best player this season. A 6-foot-6 wing, he is averaging 15.7 points and 3.6 assists while shooting 36.5 percent from three. He also runs the point for the Vols from time-to-time. On Tuesday night, when Kentucky played at Tennessee, Cauley-Stein — Kentucky’s 7-foot-1 center — drew the assignment of covering Richardson, who finished 4-for-14 from the floor:

He also drew the assignment of covering Auburn’s K.T. Harrell. Cauley-Stein might be the best defensive center in the country. He might also be the best perimeter defender in the country. He can single-handily take any advantage an opposing team has when they run a screen-and-roll by his ability to switch out onto ball-handlers.

6. Delon Wright, Utah: The Utes fell at Oregon over the weekend, putting their Pac-12 title hopes in jeopardy, but that shouldn’t take any of the luster off of the season that Wright is having. We’ve discussed this before, but one of the things that makes Wright so efficient offensively despite the fact that he doesn’t make many threes is that he’s incredible at getting to the rim and finishing over bigger players. If you didn’t believe me, here’s some visual proof:

7. Kris Dunn, Providence: Dunn had 21 points, four boards, four assists and four steals in last week’s win over DePaul, a relatively mediocre win for the guy that should be in everyone’s college basketball FanDuel lineups whenever he is suiting up. But he also had six turnovers in that game, which is not all that surprising considering that he is averaging 4.2 turnovers on the season. Is that the reason that he doesn’t show up on more Player of the Year listings?

8. T.J. McConnell, Arizona: This isn’t necessarily going to be about T.J. McConnell, but I wanted to take the chance to highlight a brilliant coaching move from Sean Miller over the weekend. With Arizona locked in a tight game at home against UCLA, Miller noticed that the Bruins had switched to a 3-2 zone late in the second half. Kevon Looney, who was killing the Wildcats in the second half, was playing at the top of the zone. He also had four fouls, so Miller called for a set play — one he likely implemented that week while prepping for the game — where Stanley Johnson and Gabe York set in-screens on the two wings, leaving Looney to guard McConnell 1-on-1. McConnell goes by him and draws Looney’s fifth foul, getting the potential lottery pick out of the game:

9. Seth Tuttle, Northern Iowa: As long as the Panthers and Wichita State can get past their midweek games, they’ll head into Saturday — the final game of the regular season — tied for first place in the Missouri Valley. On a Saturday with some unreal matchups, that might end up being the best of the day.

10. Kyle Wiltjer, Gonzaga: The only reason Justin Anderson isn’t listed here is because he’s dealing with that broken finger, but don’t let that take away from the season that Wiltjer has had. He’s 17.4 points and 5.8 boards he’s averaging while shooting 46.9 percent from three is impressive in and of itself, but when you look at his efficiency numbers is when it goes from good to great. Wiltjer’s offensive rating, according to KenPom, is 132.1, an insanely high number before you even consider the fact that he’s using 26.3 percent of Gonzaga’s possessions. Only one other player since 2004, when KenPom started keeping track of these numbers, has had an offensive rating above 130 while using at least 24 percent of his team’s possessions.

If Wiltjer wasn’t such a question mark on the defensive end, he’d be much higher on this list.

OTHERS THAT WERE CONSIDERED: Justin Anderson (Virginia), Ron Baker (Wichita State), Ryan Boatright (UConn), Rakeem Christmas (Syracuse), Kyle Collinsworth (BYU), Tyler Haws (BYU), Buddy Hield (Oklahoma), Stanley Johnson (Arizona), Jarell Martin (LSU), Jordan Mickey (LSU), Larry Nance Jr. (Wyoming), Georges Niang (Iowa State), Kevin Pangos (Gonzaga), Bobby Portis (Arkansas), Juwan Staten (West Virginia), Melo Trimble (Maryland), Seth Tuttle (Northern Iowa), Brad Waldow (St. Mary’s), Joseph Young (Oregon)