On The Clock: Duquesne's T.J. McConnell
McConnell earned Atlantic-10 Rookie of the Year honors and was the only Division I freshman in the country with over 300 points, 125 assists and 75 steals. The 6-1 guard is now the face of the program after the graduation of Bill Clark and Damian Saunders, who combined for over 3,100 career points and nearly 1,700 rebounds. PSR's David Golebiewski recently sat down with McConnell to chat about his freshman year, his role in coach Ron Everhart's offense and his bold predictions for the 2011-12 season.
PSR: Looking back at your freshman year, how much pressure did you feel as a WPIAL star coming to play for Duquesne?
T.J. McConnell: People talked about the pressure, but I didn't worry about it. I just went out and did what I had to do to help the team win.
Coach Everhart made me feel at ease. And the players last year—Bill, Damian, even B.J. [Monteiro], Sean [Johnson] and Mike [Talley]—just told me to go out there and play, and that's what I did.
PSR: What aspect of your freshman year are you most proud of?
TJ: I think the 11-game winning streak. We were playing great. We did let up at the end [Duquesne went 3-8 after the streak], but the streak shows us how good of a team we can be and how good of a team we are. We can make things like that happen.
PSR: Can you describe what it was like on the Bluff during that streak?
TJ: It felt like nothing could go wrong. No matter what we'd do, we couldn't lose. You could hear people [on campus] going, 'oh, seven games, eight games,' and it just kept going. You could feel their excitement.
PSR: How can Duquesne continue its winning ways without Bill and Damian?
TJ: Everyone has to do their part and pick up the slack. B.J. and Eric [Evans] are seniors, and they're great leaders. I know they're going to have us ready for each game, and coach Everhart and the staff are gonna have us ready. I think if everyone plays their role, we can accomplish what we did last year, if not better.
PSR: What's the most important advice you received from Bill and Damian?
TJ: It's the things they said during the game that made me feel comfortable. If I made a turnover or missed a shot, they would say, 'Don't worry about it, just keep playing.' I used that in the games and it really helped.
PSR: What style of play will the Dukes have this year with a much less experienced front court?
TJ: I think we'll have the same style as we did last year – fast-paced, running, pressing. Just getting up and making people run.
PSR: Can you describe your experiences in the Pittsburgh Basketball Club Pro-Am Summer League?
TJ: Playing with guys from West Virginia, Pitt, Akron, Youngstown State, Cornell and Davidson – the competition couldn't be much better. It only helps you going into the season. It's a great summer league.
PSR: Your squad [Team PBC, which also featured Dukes Talley and Danny Herrera] had a great comeback against some Pitt guys on Team SPK Law.
TJ: We didn't start off too hot and we were down a little bit [16 points at the half]. But me, Mike and a couple of other guys came back and we ended up winning.
PSR: It had to feel good to beat those Pitt guys [SPK Law featured Ashton Gibbs, Lamar Peterson and former Panther Gary McGhee].
TJ: Oh yeah. But I just wish it was during the regular season. We're gonna try to do that this year.
PSR: Duquesne is picked to finish ninth in the A-10. Thoughts?
TJ: That's really low to me. But they can put us wherever they want because we're just going to come out and play and prove we shouldn't be ranked that low. We're going to prove to people that we should be in the top three. That's what we do – prove people wrong, because no one gives us respect.
PSR: Coach Everhart said he's looking for you to trade some assists for shots this season. Do you see yourself becoming more of a pure scorer?
TJ: At some points I do, but I love getting people the ball. If I get an assist, it's more satisfying than points. But if he would like me to pick up the scoring, I'm more than happy to do that. I'll do whatever it takes to win.
PSR: You had one of the best assist-to-turnover ratios of any freshman in history. What makes you such a good ball handler, and how did you develop those skills?
TJ: Just working with my dad [Chartiers Valley coach Tim McConnell] throughout the summer going into my freshman year. And working with coach Everhart and the guys, they only made me better. It's just a testament to how good coach Everhart is and how good of a coach my dad is, and an even better father.
PSR: Do you consider yourself a team leader at this point?
TJ: I try to be, but the seniors are here. B.J. and Eric, they've been here the longest so I look up to them and try to learn from them. Mike, Jerry [Jones], Derrick [Martin], when it's our senior year, it will be our time to lead. But B.J. and Eric know what they're talking about, I wouldn't rather have any leaders but them.
PSR: What will it take for this team to make the NCAA Tournament?
TJ: It's going to take always being in the gym and not taking one day off, not even taking a minute off. We just need to outwork people, I think.
PSR: What's do you want people to know about Duquesne basketball?
TJ: That you're going to see us in the NCAA Tournament this year.