Duquesne’s TJ McConnell is underrated, but there’s more to him than just hoops

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CINCINNATI – Ron Everhart knows a thing or two about underrated point guards.

When he was at Northeastern, he had a 5-10 point guard running his team that was averaging 21.0 ppg and 8.4 apg. But that was Northeastern, which, like Duquesne, is a bit off the beaten path for NBA scouts. Everhart thought he deserved more attention nationally, and he ended up being right: that 5-10 point guard played a major role in dethroning King James back in June.

“I used to tell people back in Boston, I think you should come and watch this JJ Barea kid play, I think he’s a legitimate NBA player,” Everhart said after Duquesne lost to Xavier at the Cintas Center on Wednesday night. “People would laugh at me and say ‘there’s no way, there’s no way.’ Well, the kid ended up playing his way into a World Championship. I feel exactly the same way about TJ McConnell. I think he’s very similar.”

And it didn’t take Everhart long to notice it, either.

He became convinced that McConnell was going to be a great player when he saw him hit three straight threes and steal the ball from Terrelle Pryor, the former Ohio State quarterback that was a pretty good hooper in his own right back in high school. No one really knew about McConnell beyond his last name; at the time, he was just a freshman in high school.

“We had offered him during his freshman year and I think his dad thought I was crazy. I know everyone else did. He was about 5-8, 145 pounds,” Everhart said with the smile of a man that knew he found a diamond in the rough. “Maybe 135 pounds.” McConnell laughed when I told him his coach said he was 5-8 when he made the decision to offer the youngster a scholarship.

“5-5 at the tallest.”

So what did Everhart see in McConnell that made him offer the soon-to-be sophomore a scholarship?

“I come off of four years of coaching JJ Barea up at Northeastern,” Everhart said, “so when I saw him play, I saw right away to court instincts, I saw the vision, I saw the natural get his teammates shots kind of things, he’s great defensively. I just thought he was going to be a really good player.”

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The McConnells are a basketball institution in Pittsburgh.

His father, who coached TJ in high school at Charters Valley, has run one of the most successful programs in the history of the WPIAL. One of McConnell’s aunts, Suzie, is an Olympic gold medalist, a former WNBA all-star and currently the women’s coach at Duquesne. Another aunt, Kathy, played at Virginia and was a head coach at Tulsa and Colorado. A third aunt, Maureen, played at Pitt while one of TJ’s uncles, Tom, played for Davidson and is now the head coach at St. Francis (PA).

Hoops is in his DNA. And that’s part of what helped Everhart land the point guard.

“I relate to them real well,” he said. “My three brothers in West Virginia, we all grew up and played basketball in college on scholarship. Its just one of those things where its important that everyone in your family is involved with it and they’re good at it. Sometimes it means a little bit more.”

Having basketball in his blood is part of the reason that McConnell is able to be so successful. McConnell wasn’t blessed with the kind of physical tools that guys like John Wall and Derrick Rose have. He’s not going to dunk on anyone. He’s listed at 6-1, which may be a bit generous. He’s doesn’t have the kind of quickness that makes him a terror to try and defend.

Where McConnell succeeds is that he understands the game. Its a cliche, I know, but he’s a coach on the floor.

“He understands how to lead a team and to get people to do the things they need to do. Everybody listens,” senior guard Eric Evans said on Wednesday. “He can do a lot as a point guard. He can rebound, he can make plays for other people, he can also score.”

You can see that in the numbers McConnell puts up. This season, he’s averaging 11.5 ppg, 4.1 rpg and 6.1 apg, which leads the conference. He’s already posted a triple-double this season, going for 15 points, 11 assists and 10 boards against UDC. He’s also shooting 47.1 percent from three, which is third in the conference.

But perhaps his best attribute as a player is his ability to defend; McConnell is second in the country in steals, averaging 3.0 spg. He’s one of the few players in the country where you can legitimately say he does everything well.

The Atlantic 10 is deep at the point guard spot this season, but the best of the bunch is Tu Holloway, the guy responsible for shutting down McConnell on Wednesday night. And even Tu is a McConnell fan.

“I’m a big fan of basketball, and I watch guys like him,” Holloway said after holding McConnell to four points and four assists on 2-7 shooting in Xavier’s 78-50 win. “The way he can shoot so efficiently from the field, I think to myself ‘wow, I want to be able to shoot like TJ McConnell.’ The way he controls things, he goes at him own pace.”

“You could see the maturity in his game and how he’s always poised and goes out there and let’s things happen the way he wants it to. He doesn’t let guys speed him up. ”

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Basketball may be the lifeblood of the McConnell clan, but so is Pittsburgh, which is why it was so easy for McConnell to make the decision to accept a scholarship at Duquesne.

“To see my dad, my mom and my brother and sister and grandparents at every game,” McConnell said when I asked him why he wanted to stay home for college. “Not many people can say that they have that. It makes me feel that much better a home cooked meal when I’m having a bad day.”

For all the numbers that he puts up and all the adulation he will surely get before his basketball career is over, at his core McConnell is just a kid that wants to win basketball games. Players at the Division I level — especially those that face media scrutiny every day of their career — are programmed to be media friendly. Give bland quotes, stay humble and don’t say anything that will end up on the locker room of your next opponent.

Its almost as if ‘Interacting with the Media 101’ is the first class that players take when they get to school.

McConnell was no different.

I asked him if he thought he was underrated nationally, and he simply said “people probably don’t think that after tonight.” I asked him if he hears the rumblings that he’s one of the top point guards in the country, and he said “some people have said that. I’m just worried about winning. I’m not worried about rankings, if I’m the best point guard in the nation or the 20th best. I just want to get the W.”

Hell, I even asked him if he thought his family was Pittsburgh’s basketball royalty — something Coach Everhart believes to be true — and his answer was no.

“I don’t think there is one family that rules Pittsburgh, there’s a lot of great players out there in Pittsburgh. There’s a lot of good people that come out of there that play basketball.”

But what set McConnell apart was that every word that come out of his mouth seemed sincere. This wasn’t McConnell posturing for the media. This wasn’t a player that was annoyed he had one of the worst games of his career when a writer showed up to do a story on him. He was clearly devastated by the way his team lost — when asked to describe his team’s performance in one word, he immediately said “embarrassing” — and he even needed some convincing from me to actually do an interview.

That’s just the kind of kid he is.

The only press clippings he reads are the league standings.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.

Kentucky’s Tionna Herron recovering from open-heart surgery

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy says freshman Tionna Herron is recovering from open-heart surgery to correct a structural abnormality.

The 6-foot-4 post player learned of her condition after arriving at school in June and received other opinions before surgery was recommended. Senior trainer Courtney Jones said in a release that Herron underwent surgery Aug. 24 at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston and is recovering at home in DeSoto, Texas.

Elzy said Herron “is the definition of a warrior” and all are grateful to be on the other side of the player’s surgery. Herron is expected back on campus early next month and will continue rehabilitation until she’s cleared to return to normal activity.

“Her will and determination to eventually return to the court is inspiring, and it’s that `game-on’ attitude that is what makes her such a perfect fit in our program,” Elzy said in a release. “We are so thrilled for Tionna’s return to our locker room; it’s not the same without our full team together.”

Herron committed to Kentucky during last fall’s early signing period, rated as a four-star prospect and a top-70 player in last year’s class. Kentucky won last year’s Southeastern Conference Tournament and reached the NCAA Tournament’s first round.

Emoni Bates charged with 2 felonies

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SUPERIOR TOWNSHIP, Mich — Emoni Bates, a former basketball prodigy who transferred to Eastern Michigan from Memphis, was charged with two felonies after police found a gun in a car during a traffic stop.

The 18-year-old Bates failed to stop at an intersection Sunday night and a search turned up the weapon, said Derrick Jackson, a spokesman for the Washtenaw County sheriff’s office.

Defense attorney Steve Haney told The Associated Press that the vehicle and the gun didn’t belong to Bates.

“I hope people can reserve judgment and understand there’s a presumption of innocence,” Haney said. “This was not his vehicle. This was not his gun. … We’re still gathering facts, too.”

Bates was charged with carrying a concealed weapon and altering identification marks on a firearm. He was released after his lawyer entered a not guilty plea. Bates’ next court hearing is Oct. 6.

“This is his first brush with the law,” Haney said in court. “He poses no threat or risk to society.”

Less than a month ago, the 6-foot-9 Bates transferred to Eastern Michigan to play for his hometown Eagles. Bates averaged nearly 10 points a game last season as a freshman at Memphis, where he enrolled after reclassifying to skip a year of high school and join the class of 2021.

“We are aware of a situation involving one of our student athletes,” EMU spokesman Greg Steiner said. “We are working to gather more details and will have further comment when more information is available.”

Bates was the first sophomore to win the Gatorade national player of the year award in high school basketball in 2020, beating out Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley. Detroit drafted Cunningham No. 1 overall last year, two spots before Cleveland took Mobley in the 2021 NBA draft.

Bates committed to playing for Tom Izzo at Michigan State two years ago, later de-committed and signed with Memphis. Bates played in 18 games for the Tigers, who finished 22-11 under Penny Hardaway. Bates missed much of the season with a back injury before appearing in Memphis’ two NCAA Tournament games.

In 2019, as a high school freshman, the slender and skilled guard led Ypsilanti Lincoln to a state title and was named Michigan’s Division 1 Player of the Year by The Associated Press. His sophomore season was cut short by the pandemic and he attended Ypsi Prep Academy as a junior, his final year of high school.

UConn to pay Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million over firing

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn announced Thursday it has agreed to pay former men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million to settle discrimination claims surrounding his 2018 firing.

The money is in addition to the more than $11.1 million in back salary Ollie has already been paid after an arbitrator ruled in January that he was improperly fired under the school’s agreement with its professor’s union.

“I am grateful that we were able to reach agreement,” Ollie said in a statement Thursday. “My time at UConn as a student-athlete and coach is something I will always cherish. I am pleased that this matter is now fully and finally resolved.”

Ollie, a former UConn point guard who guided the Huskies to a 127-79 record and the 2014 national championship in six seasons as head coach, was let go after two losing seasons. UConn also stopped paying him under his contract, citing numerous NCAA violations in terminating the deal.

In 2019, the NCAA placed UConn on probation for two years and Ollie was sanctioned individually for violations, which the NCAA found occurred between 2013 and 2018. Ollie’s attorneys, Jacques Parenteau and William Madsen, accused UConn of making false claims to the NCAA for the purpose of firing Ollie “with cause.”

The school had argued that Ollie’s transgressions were serious and that his individual contract superseded those union protections.

Ollie’s lawyers had argued that white coaches, including Hall-of-Famers Jim Calhoun and women’s coach Geno Auriemma, had also committed NCAA violations, without being fired, and indicated they were planning to file a federal civil rights lawsuit.

The school and Ollie said in a joint statement Thursday they were settling “to avoid further costly and protracted litigation.”

Both sides declined to comment further.

Ollie, who faced three years of restrictions from the NCAA on becoming a college basketball coach again, is currently coaching for Overtime Elite, a league that prepares top prospects who are not attending college for the pros.

Dream’s McDonald returning to Arizona to coach under Barnes

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TUCSON, Ariz. — Atlanta Dream guard Aari McDonald is returning to Arizona to work under coach Adia Barnes.

The school announced that McDonald will serve as director of recruiting operations while continuing to fulfill her WNBA commitments. She will oversee all recruiting logistics, assist with on-campus visits, manage recruit information and social media content at Arizona.

McDonald was one of the best players in Arizona history after transferring from Washington as a sophomore. She was an All-American and the Pac-12 player of the year in 2020-21, leading the Wildcats to the national championship game, which they lost to Stanford.

McDonald broke Barnes’ single-season scoring record and had the highest career scoring average in school history before being selected by the Dream with the third overall pick of the 2021 WNBA draft.

South Carolina, Staley cancel BYU games over racial incident

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COLUMBIA, S.C. – South Carolina and women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley have canceled a home-and-home series with BYU over a recent racial incident where a Cougars fan yelled slurs at a Duke volleyball player.

The Gamecocks were scheduled to start the season at home against BYU on Nov. 7, then play at the Utah campus during the 2023-24 season.

But Staley cited BYU’s home volleyball match last month as reason for calling off the series.

“As a head coach, my job is to do what’s best for my players and staff,” Staley said in a statement released by South Carolina on Friday. “The incident at BYU has led me to reevaluate our home-and-home, and I don’t feel that this is the right time for us to engage in this series.”

Duke sophomore Rachel Richardson, a Black member of the school’s volleyball team, said she heard racial slurs from the stands during the match.

BYU apologized for the incident and Richardson said the school’s volleyball players reached out to her in support.

South Carolina said it was searching for another home opponent to start the season.

Gamecocks athletic director Ray Tanner spoke with Staley about the series and supported the decision to call off the games.