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.”
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. ”
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.