T.J. McConnell makes a world of difference for Arizona against Duke

By Jon Rothstein | CBS Sports

NEW YORK -- Sean Miller walked off the floor and was beyond dejected after Arizona lost in last year's Sweet 16 against Ohio State.

The Wildcats went toe to toe with the Buckeyes for nearly 40 minutes, but had a miscommunication defensively in the game's final seconds that allowed LaQuinton Ross to nail a game winning three-point shot.

Just like that Arizona's season was over.

But even though the Wildcats didn't advance and move forward, Miller looked at the opposing bench that night and took solace in the fact that he had a point guard in waiting in the mold of Ohio State's Aaron Craft.

And while Miller would have to wait six more months for T.J. McConnell to make his Arizona debut, he knew the hard-nosed transfer from Duquesne would be exactly what the Wildcats' program had been missing since Miller's arrival in 2009.

That was never more apparent than Friday night against Duke at Madison Square Garden.

Operating with poise and focus of Peyton Manning on the first Sunday in December, McConnell had his imprints all over the game immediately from the opening tip.

The 6-1 junior scored 10 points, handed out eight assists, grabbed six rebounds, and only committed two turnovers in the Wildcats' 72-66 win over the Blue Devils in the NIT title game.

"I just let the game come to me," McConnell said after the game. "It was tough to sit out last year but it benefited me. I got bigger in the weight room and I got to practice and build chemistry with your teammates."

The biggest difference between this Arizona team and the past few Miller has led in the desert?

McConnell.

The Wildcats got to an Elite Eight with Momo Jones in 2011, and won two NCAA Tournament games last year with Mark Lyons, but neither of those players sets the table like McConnell.

A true extension of Miller on the floor, McConnell knows when to get his teammates touches at the right time and when to attack or pull the ball out.

A coach on the floor?

The epitome of one.

"He's a veteran," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said after the game. "He makes good decisions and he has good people to make decisions with. They're a veteran team and that's why they're a bit ahead right now."

But Arizona is also far from they're going to be.

The Wildcats have all the requisites to get to a Final Four and they learned a great deal about themselves during this trip to New York.

Against Drexel in the semifinals on Wednesday, Arizona trailed the Dragons by 19 points in the first half before rallying for a four-point win.

Then Friday against Duke, the Wildcats never really seized control of the game until the middle of the second half.

Battle tested?

They are now.

"The one thing I learned about at Xavier was the importance of non-conference scheduling," Miller said. "Part of going to San Diego State and coming to New York are things that make you better. Two things happened in both games out here that will stay with us the entire season. Against Drexel, Kaleb Tarczewski was able to put behind him a bad first half and in the second half he had a great half. Then tonight against Duke, Nick Johnson struggled in the first half and was able to move forward in the second half. I thought for 15 minutes there he was the best player on the floor."

And McConnell.

"He's always in the right place," Miller said. "All he tries to do is run his team and get assists. In today's day and age, that's rare."

 
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