By Paul Casey Gotham
It happened during a recent tour of Canada. Ron Everhart and his Duquesne Dukes were getting in some off-season exhibition work . The opposition was a semi-pro team from north of the border. The teams lined up for a free throw. T.J. McConnell stood in the back-court watching his teammate at the line. The shot kicked off the rim, and came to rest in an opponent’s hands who quickly turned and released an over-hand full-court baseball pass. The orange globe hissed through the air destined for its target when McConnell deftly stepped in its path. In one motion the 6’1″ guard elevated, grabbed the ball with two hands, planted his feet and delivered his own full-court pass to an open teammate for a lay-up.
McConnell didn’t tip or deflect the pass. Instead he calmly stopped the ball’s momentum and his own, shifted directions and alertly found an open teammate. There were no announcers on hand to heap praises. Not that they necessarily would notice. The play occurred so quickly, and McConnell made it look effortless.
But the play did not get overlooked by Everhart.
“I had to go back after a couple of days and see it on film,” Everhart said. “That was pretty good. That’s how good his hands are. I have never seen that before. He has that ability to affect a game.”
As a freshman, McConnell set an A-10 rookie record and led the conference with 91 steals while handing out 140 assists and committing just 56 turnovers. With those numbers the Pittsburgh, Pa. native earned A-10 Rookie-of-the-Year honors along with Pre-Season All-Defensive and Third Team All A-10.
“Defensively, he’s got the best hands I’ve ever seen,” Everhart explained when discussing what makes McConnell special. “Offensively, he might have as good of vision as I have ever seen.”
Lofty praise considering that during Everhart’s tenure at Northeastern he coached J.J. Barea.
“He might be one of the better point guards in basketball,” Everhart said of Barea. “He won a world championship this year with Dallas, and it probably doesn’t get any better than that. McConnell is on that same level.”
With McConnell at point a year ago, the Dukes posted their fourth consecutive non-losing season going 10-6 in the A-10 and 19-12 overall. After a brief slump in December DU won 11 straight including their first eight in A-10 play. The streak earned Duquesne votes in top 25 and eventually a spot in the College Basketball Invitational – the Dukes’ third post-season showing in as many years.
Now the Dukes face a future without Bill Clark and Damian Saunders who graduated nearly 29 points and 14 rebounds a game of production.
“When you look at where our roster is right now,” Everhart explained. “Obviously, McConnell has got to go from the eight or nine assists-a-game guy to maybe taking a few of those assists away and making those shot attempts – as long as they’re good shot attempts.”
McConnell scored 10.8 per game a year ago on 132-265 shooting (49.8 percent) from the field including 39-97 (.402) from the three-point arc. He scored 2,406 points at Chartiers Valley High including 1,062 in his senior season alone.
“He’s going to have to emerge and become one of our more efficient shot takers,” Everhart added. “A lot of T.J.’s success his freshman year had to do with the fact that he had guys like Clark and Saunders running down the wings and blocking shots. We’re going to see this year. Like I told him, now you got a target on your back. We’re going to really see where you are as a basketball player.”
McConnell verbally committed to Duquesne in October of 2007 before he played in a game as a sophomore. He was 5’8″ and weighed 125 pounds.
“Everybody said I was absolutely out of my mind at the time,” Everhart recalls. “I ended up looking a little smart on this one. He’s turned out to be a really good player.”
Duquesne opens its season on November ninth when it takes on nationally ranked Arizona. Tip-off is scheduled for 9 p.m., and the game is scheduled to be televised on ESPNU. The Wildcats lost to eventual national champion, UConn, in the 2011West Region Championship game.
Duquesne played four eventual NCAA Tournament teams last December. Three of those games were decided by single digits as the Dukes came out on the wrong end. George Mason trimmed Everhart’s club in double overtime 85-79. Penn State handled the Dukes 77-73, and West Virginia won at the Palumbo Center 64-61. Duquesne opened the month falling to cross-town rival Pittsburgh 80-66.
Everhart took over the program in 2006 after 13 consecutive losing seasons including a collapse in 2005-2006 where DU managed just three wins. Two years later, Duquesne went 21-13 and earned a spot in the NIT.