Arizona Basketball

T.J. McConnell belongs among top Arizona Wildcats point guards who were leaders

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T.J. McConnell today said he welcomes the role of being tough when necessary on players like  freshman Stanley Johnson (Pac-12 Networks video screen shot, click on photo to access video)

T.J. McConnell today said he welcomes the role of being tough when necessary on players like freshman Stanley Johnson (Pac-12 Networks video screen shot, click on photo to access video)

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How important is the point guard position in a team’s Final Four quest?

Look at what Steve Kerr, Damon Stoudamire, Mike Bibby and Jason Gardner meant to their teams. They were the impetus for getting Arizona to the Final Four.

Lute Olson often said Kerr was the “glue that holds the team together” when Arizona played in its first Final Four in 1988.

Stoudamire, in his second season as an assistant under Sean Miller, credits Olson for becoming the point guard that led the Wildcats to the 1994 Final Four.

“He taught you how to deal with people,” Stoudmire said in a Sporting News interview two years ago. “He taught you how to deal with different types of people.

“He taught you about accountability, trying to do stuff the right way. That’s the type of things that he taught me, and those are the types of things we all in the coaching profession need to get at these kids about.”

Bibby, softspoken during his freshman and sophomore years at Arizona, was more of a leader by example. His ability to handle the point guard spot effectively at such a young age rubbed off on his teammates in the 1996-97 national title year.

“Mike Bibby is a special guy,” Olson said in a 1997 Los Angeles Times article. “He’s not a guy that looks like pressure bothers him.”

Gardner was a stalwart of the program, a valuable four-year starter who missed only one game in his career.

When Gardner was inducted into the Pac-12 Hall of Honor two years ago, Olson was asked if he is surprised Gardner has become a coach. Gardner is in his first season at Indiana University-Purdue University-Indianapolis (IUPUI).

“He just has that mentality on the floor,” Olson said in an interview with Pac-12.com. “You can tell which guys are going to coach and which ones aren’t.”

Kerr is coaching Golden State to unprecedented success for a first-year NBA head coach. Stoudamire is a head coach on the horizon as one of Miller’s aides. Bibby is serving as volunteer head coach of his alma mater Phoenix Shadow Mountain, where his son Mike Jr. is a junior.

With McConnell’s leadership ability on the floor, it won’t be too long after his pro career is done that he will have the tag “Coach” before his name.

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Viewers have seen that in Arizona’s game on television. During the Maui Invitational, McConnell shouted at freshman wing player Stanley Johnson to “shut up” after Johnson got into a war of words with an opponent. Last Saturday against Utah, the Pac-12 Networks captured McConnell tugging on and pushing Johnson while yelling encouragement after Johnson made consecutive baskets in the second half after going scoreless in the first half.

“It’s just the kind of relationship me and Stanley have,” McConnell said earlier today in a press conference at McKale. “I’m tough on him and he told me to be tough on him, so that’s what I’m going to do.

“Negative or positive, he takes it and he uses it as motivation, and he’s been great.”

The element McConnell brings to the team in that regard is invaluable. The saying goes the point guard is an extension of the coach on the team. McConnell can get in a player’s face and tug on him whereas Miller must keep his decorum while barking out assignments, praise and criticism to his players.

Miller has his assistant coaching staff (Stoudamire, Joe Pasternack and Book Richardson) to also be more on the level with his players. Richardson often gets emotional with the players around the bench. Pasternack can get intense as well. Stoudamire is often viewed as calm and collected.

Miller has the advantage of having an animated McConnell on the court, being the glue that holds a talented group together much like Kerr did with Sean Elliott, Craig McMillan (Arizona’s first McDonald’s All-American), Tom Tolbert and Anthony Cook.

“T.J. has great credibility among our team, coaching staff and program,” Miller said today. “He might be our team’s hardest worker. If not, he’s near the top. He might be our team’s greatest competitor, and if he isn’t, he’s right there at the top.

“He’s consistent in who he is every day. Win or lose, he’s always trying to practice the game hard. He’s trying to get better. He’s worried about winning or losing. So when you do that, what you say means something.”

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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He has also written articles for Bleacher Report and Lindy’s College Sports.

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