Outside the Ohio River Valley, the news of TJ McConnell’s transfer to Arizona didn’t register much more than a blip on the college basketball radar.
Coming off a sophomore season in which he ranked third nationally in steals, McConnell also ranked among the Atlantic 10 Conference leaders in assist/turnover ratio, three-point shooting, and assists.
But playing for a Duquesne program that barely finished the year above .500, it was difficult for McConnell to earn much national recognition.
“T.J. just feels like he would like to try and play at a higher level,” McConnell’s father said at the time.
One week before his transfer, Arizona men’s basketball suffered its most humiliating defeat in recent memory.
Playing in front of 8,433 fans at a soon to be renovated McKale Center, the Wildcats lost in the first round of the NIT to Bucknell University.
Arizona committed 12 turnovers to 13 assists and shot 35.4 percent from the field. With Josiah Turner suspended indefinitely, Nick Johnson shared point guard duties with Jordin Mayes.
The Wildcats finished the season 23-12. Including the Bucknell defeat, four of those losses came at home.
For the next few weeks, Arizona fans anguished over what the future might hold.
Sure, plenty of talent was staying and entering the program. Nick Johnson had shown a good deal of potential freshman year, and Mayes as well as Solomon Hill would provide upper-classmen leadership.
But the chances of Turner remaining at Arizona looked increasingly slim. And that meant Point Guard U needed a new point guard.
On April 10, the Wildcats found him.
After hearing pitches from a number of programs, McConnell committed to the Wildcats, eager to play under Sean Miller.
“It seems like a great fit for me,” he told the Pittsburgh-Gazette. “I just have to work hard and see what happens.”
By now, we all know what happens.
It’s hard to reduce McConnell’s career at Arizona to just a few frames. Every game he played in, he brought the same level of energy and emotion, unmatched by anyone in the court or in the arena.
Even in his first year as a Wildcat, when he had to sit out due to NCAA transfer rules, he made an enormous presence in the practice gym and on the bench.
McConnell went head-to-head with Mark Lyons in practice, forcing the graduate-transfer to match up with one of the best defenders in the game.
It paid off.
After Lyons hit the game-winner versus Florida, one of the defining images is of McConnell jumping into Grant Jerrett’s arms, full of celebration. He had worked nearly as hard for that win as his teammates.
The Florida win was the first of many magical moments at McKale under McConnell’s watch.
The last of those moments, kissing the block A, cutting down the nets, and running through the Zona Zoo may be remembered the longest.
But McConnell’s time at Arizona will live on in more ways than memories.
He executed the same brand of blue-collar basketball Sean Miller instilled. Teammates, like McConnell’s successor Parker Jackson-Cartwright, bought into this style and will carry it on.
Coaches of all levels, including Miller, like to spew out that no player is bigger than the program.
But TJ McConnell, he is the program. He is Arizona basketball.
From reaching No. 1 in the polls last season to the momentous Gonzaga and Utah victories of this year, all the way to the painstaking Elite Eight losses, McConnell led Arizona through a regal procession.
We were all fortunate enough to wave him on.