Arizona basketball: A kiss to build a dream on - Tucson News Now

Arizona basketball: A kiss to build a dream on

Anthony Gimino Anthony Gimino
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By Anthony Gimino
Special for Tucson News Now

You have your image of Arizona basketball, 2014-15. Put it in the scrapbook. T.J. McConnell, subbing out of a game at McKale Center for the final time, getting down on his knees, leaning over to kiss the court.

If we have to use a cliché here, we will, even in a quote.

"He's our team's heart and soul," said head coach Sean Miller.

After "The Kiss," McConnell headed over to receive a big hug from Miller near the sideline, then made his way to the other coaches and teammates with tears in his eyes, and it got a little misty for many of the 14,655 in McKale who have come to put McConnell among the pantheon of most-loved Wildcats.

"He's a hard guy to say goodbye to," Miller told CBS after the game. "Hopefully, he has several weeks left to play."

Yeah. So let's put the tears on hold.

The 28-3 ride to Arizona's back-to-back Pac-12 regular-season titles has just been the warm-up for Miller, McConnell and their men, and you couldn't ask for the Wildcats to be in a better place than they are right now.

Anybody up for a month of madness?

The Wildcats head off to Las Vegas this week as the No. 1 seed, and overwhelming favorites, in the Pac-12 tournament. After three incredibly tight losses in the tournament title game -- plus the infamous "He touched the ball" game in the 2013 semifinals -- Miller desperately wants to win this title.

But this, too, ultimately, is a warm-up.

A place in Arizona (and college basketball) history awaits Arizona, which, you could make the argument, is playing as well as any team in the country not named Kentucky. It's been a process to get here. That's why Miller always drones on about "honoring the process."

Life is such for the elites of college basketball that the annual roster exodus to the pro ranks leaves coaches wondering about new roles and chemistry and willingness to sacrifice at the start of each new season. Miller publicly, and privately, challenged his team in all those areas ... and then it really started to click about mid-January.

And look at the Cats now:

--McConnell had 22 assists and two turnovers this weekend against Cal and Stanford. Note the social media outrage Monday morning when Oregon's Joseph Young was picked by the league coaches over McConnell as Pac-12 Player of the Year.

--Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is a unique shut-down defender who can guard four positions. In another curious snub, he wasn't chosen as the conference's Defensive Player of the Year.

--Kaleb Tarczewski overcame confidence issues to return to Zeus status. He's averaging 13 points and 6.3 rebounds in the past seven games, shaking the arena with two-handed throw-downs.

--Gabe York has become an attacking instant scorer off the bench, averaging 12.3 points and making 13 of 25 3-point shots in the past five games. "Gabe has just been stepping up," McConnell said.

--Brandon Ashley, also heeding the message to be more aggressive, is coming off a weekend in which he scored 36 points and had 15 rebounds.

--Stanley Johnson earned Pac-12 Freshman of the Year honors, averaging 13.9 points and 6.6 rebounds, both team-highs.

(And those freshman backups Dusan Ristic and Parker Jackson-Cartwright aren't bad, either.)

And we should mention defense. We should definitely mention defense. Because on those nights in the NCAA Tournament when the offense stalls, stranded on the side of the road, the Cats should always have their defense to keep them in the game, perhaps even win the game.

The most impressive part of it all is that no team in the country gives up fewer offensive rebounds than Arizona. Opponents rebound only 22.6 percent of their misses (Arizona, by comparison, grabs 34.3 percent of its misses.)

"We have established ourselves as an elite defensive rebounding team," Miller said recently.

"When they shoot and miss and they only get one (shot), there will be some coaches that tell you that is the most important part of defense. We cannot let that slip."

There is still a long way to go.

McConnell didn't win the Pac-12 Player of the Year award, but that doesn't diminish his amazing story as a transfer from Duquesne who made it big on the biggest of stages. Arizona football has its Two-Star Scoob --multiple-award winner and consensus All-American linebacker Scooby Wright. Arizona basketball has Two-Star T.J.

Look it up. That's how McConnell was rated by Scout.com out of high school (and he was not rated at all by Rivals.com).

"It's a lesson to all these guys," Miller said.

"It's not who you were in high school, it's who you are in college. Four or five years ago, T.J.'s name, you couldn't find it anywhere. You look at what he means to our team, not just this season, but our last two, I have a hard time believing a point guard is any better than him."

Anthony Gimino has covered University of Arizona athletics for more than two decades, including as the football beat writer for the Arizona Daily Star and the columnist for the Tucson Citizen.

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