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.

Louisville challenges NCAA over recruiting allegations

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Louisville has refuted NCAA allegations against its men’s basketball program in the wake of a federal corruption scandal, requesting that the highest-level violation be reclassified.

The university also is challenging that former coach Rick Pitino failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance in his program.

Louisville filed a 104-page response last week to the Notice Of Allegations sent to the school in May. The document stated that college sports’ governing body seeks to ignore wire fraud convictions against several people involved in the scheme – including a former Adidas executive – by suggesting they were representing its athletic interests. Louisville’s contract with the apparel maker was a standard sponsorship agreement rather than a promotional deal, the response added.

“This argument is as novel as it is wrong,” the school wrote in its response. “Even if an institution has some responsibility for the conduct of its suppliers, that responsibility plainly does not extend to acts of fraud perpetrated against the institution itself.”

Louisville also seeks to have several second-tier violations reclassified even lower. The NCAA has until Nov. 15 to respond with the school responding 15 days after before a decision is made whether the case will proceed through the traditional Committee on Infractions or Independent Accountability Review Process (IARP).

The NCAA’s Notice of Allegations states that Louisville committed a Level I violation, considered the most severe, with an improper recruiting offer and extra benefits along with several lesser violations. Those lesser violations also include Pitino failing to promote an atmosphere of compliance.

The NCAA notice completed a two-year investigation following a federal corruption probe of college basketball announced in September 2017. Louisville acknowledged its involvement in the federal investigation related to the recruitment of former player Brian Bowen II. Pitino, who’s now coaching Iona, was not named in the federal complaint and has consistently denied authorizing or having knowledge of a payment to a recruit’s family.

Louisville has previously indicated it would accept responsibility for violations it committed but would contest allegations it believed were not supported by facts. The school also noted corrective measures taken in the scandal’s immediate aftermath, such as suspending and then firing Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich.

Louisville also dismissed the NCAA’s contention that former Adidas executive James Gatto and amateur league director Merl Code represented the school while funneling illegal payments to recruits at several schools.

“The enforcement staff’s remaining allegations lack factual support and overread the relevant Bylaws,” the response stated, “and rest on the erroneous contention that the conspirators were representatives of the University’s athletics interests.

“For these reasons and others set forth, the panel should reject the enforcement staff’s dramatically overbroad theory, and classify this case as involving a Level II-Mitigated violation.”

Bubbles brewing with season on horizon

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INDIANAPOLIS — With the coronavirus pandemic already forcing changes for college basketball, a bubble may be brewing in Indianapolis.

Indiana Sports Corp. released a 16-page proposal Friday that calls for turning the city convention center’s exhibition halls and meeting rooms into basketball courts and locker rooms. There would be expansive safety measures and daily COVID-19 testing.

The all-inclusive price starts at $90,000 per team and would cover 20 hotel rooms per traveling party, testing, daily food vouchers ranging from $30-$50 and the cost of game officials. Sports Corp. President Ryan Vaughn said the price depends on what offerings teams or leagues choose.

“The interest has been high,” Vaughn said. “I think as conferences figure out what conference and non-conference schedules are going to look like, we’re we’re a very good option for folks. I would tell you we’ve had conversations with the power six conferences, mid-majors, it’s really kind of all over the Division I spectrum.”

Small wonder: The NCAA this week announced teams could start ramping up workouts Monday, with preseason practices set to begin Oct. 14. Season openers, however, were pushed back to Nov. 25 amid wide-ranging uncertainty about campus safety and team travel in the pandemic.

There is already scrambling going on and some of the marquee early-season tournaments have already been impacted.

The Maui Invitational will be moved from Hawaii to Asheville, North Carolina, with dates still to be determined and organizers clear that everyone involved “will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.” The Batttle 4 Atlantis has been canceled. The Cancun Challenge will be held in Melbourne, Florida, not Mexico.

More changes almost certainly will be coming, including what to do with the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

“I think we’re past the guesswork on whether we play 20 conference games or more than that,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said Friday. “We’re trying to get everybody set like in terms of MTEs (multi-team events), figuring out when to play the ACC-Big Ten challenge.”

Painter, who was part of the NCAA committee that recommended how to start the season, noted part of the uncertainty stems from differing protocols imposed by campus, city and state officials.

In Indianapolis, Vaughn believes the convention center, nearby hotels, restaurants and downtown businesses, many within walking distance of the venue, could safely accommodate up to 24 teams. The 745,000-square foot facility would feature six basketball courts and two competition courts.

Anyone entering the convention center would undergo saliva-based rapid response testing, which would be sent to a third-party lab for results. Others venues could be added, too, potentially with more fans, if the case numbers decline.

If there is a taker, the event also could serve as a dry run for the 2021 Final Four, also slated for Indy.

“It’s not going to hurt,” Vaughn said. “I can tell you all the planning we’re doing right now is the same for a Final Four that’s been scheduled here for any other year. But it would be nice to have this experience under our belt to see if it can be done.”

Maui Invitational moving to North Carolina during pandemic

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ASHEVILLE, N.C. — The Maui Invitational is moving to the mainland during the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the premier preseason tournaments on the college basketball schedule, the Maui Invitational will be played at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center in downtown Asheville, North Carolina.

Dates for the tournament announced Friday have yet to be finalized. The NCAA announced Wednesday that the college basketball season will begin Nov. 25.

This year’s Maui Invitational field includes Alabama, Davidson, Indiana, North Carolina, Providence, Stanford, Texas and UNLV.

All teams, staff, officials, and personnel will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.

Burton eligible at Texas Tech after 2 seasons at Wichita State

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LUBBOCK, Texas — Junior guard Jamarius Burton has been granted a waiver from the NCAA that makes him eligible to play this season for Texas Tech after starting 52 games the past two seasons for Wichita State.

Texas Tech coach Chris Beard announced the waiver Thursday, which came five months after Burton signed with the Big 12 team.

Burton has two seasons of eligibility remaining, as well as a redshirt season he could utilize. He averaged 10.3 points and 3.4 assists per game as a sophomore at Wichita State, where he played 67 games overall.

Burton is from Charlotte. He helped lead Independence High School to a 31-1 record and the North Carolina Class 4A state championship as a senior there.

NCAA season set to open day before Thanksgiving

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The NCAA men’s and women’s basketball season will begin on Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving.

The Division I Council voted Wednesday to push the start date back from the originally scheduled Nov. 10 as one of several precautions against the spread of coronavirus.

The later start date coincides with the decision most schools made to send students home from Thanksgiving until January out of concern about a potential late-fall and early-winter flareup of COVID-19. Closed campuses could serve as a quasi bubble for players and provide a window for non-conference games.

The maximum number of regular-season games has been reduced from 31 to 27. The minimum number of games for consideration for the NCAA Tournament was cut from 25 to 13.

Teams can start preseason practices Oct. 14 but will be allowed to work out 12 hours per week beginning Monday.

No scrimmages against other teams or exhibitions are allowed.

In other action, the council voted to extend the recruiting dead period for all sports through Dec. 31. In-person recruiting is not allowed during a dead period, though phone calls and other correspondence are allowed.

The men’s and women’s basketball oversight committees had jointly recommended a start date of Nov. 21, which would have allowed for games to be played on the weekend before Thanksgiving. The council opted not to do that to avoid a conflict with regular-season football games.

The council is scheduled to meet again Oct. 13-14 and could delay the start date and change other pieces of the basketball framework if circumstances surrounding the virus warrant.