Newcomers add versatility, depth to Arizona Wildcats basketball's defense

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Tyler Besh | The Daily Wildcat Tyler Besh / Arizona Daily Wildcat Men's basketball vs ASU

Arizona men’s basketball continues to add depth and versatility to its rotation with the additions of Duquesne University transfer, junior T.J. McConnell and highly touted freshmen Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. The Wildcats are beginning their annual quest for a national championship.

In head coach Sean Miller’s first press conference of the year last week, he discussed the addition of the team’s newest talent and stated his expectations for the upcoming season.

“We have a team that really has a great chemistry and togetherness and as much as that’s about the returning players, it’s about the willingness of these freshmen to be great teammates [while] listening and learning,” Miller said. “They kind of come to Arizona with their ego checked at the door, and while we haven’t played games yet, we’ve been around each other long enough to know that one of our strengths this year is our freshmen attitude. It’s really refreshing, great to see, and fun to be around.”

McConnell represents the Wildcats’ first true, pass-first point guard since Josiah Turner and will focus on collecting assists and leading the court instead of shooting for points.

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The Pittsburgh native averaged 10.8 points, 3.8 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 2.8 steals per game as a freshman. He was ranked fourth nationally in steals and boasted a 2.50 assists to turnovers ratio, the sixth highest for a freshman in NCAA history.

After transferring to Arizona last year, McConnell couldn’t play during the 2012-13 season due to NCAA transfer rules, but was still part of the team.

“He practiced with us every day last year, so he has great familiarity with not only his teammates, but also our system,” Miller said. “He’s not a new player. He brings the element of experience. His style of play is one where I believe he impacts the game on defense and offense.”

Miller said while people tend to focus on offense, to him, defense is one thing that has been a problem in recent years and said he thinks McConnell can help solve that. In addition to McConnell, highly regarded freshmen Hollis-Jefferson and Gordon are expected to play instrumental defensive roles.

“We have a lot of [new] talent on defense,” Miller said. “Looking at Rondae and Aaron here early on … as exciting as it is to add them as basketball players, they are not like your normal freshmen where they have a lot to learn defensively. And although they are learning our system, they are both well-versed, competitive and have talent on that side of the ball.”

Hollis-Jefferson signed with the Wildcats last September and came out of Chester High School as the No. 21 overall prospect in his class as ranked by ESPN. The 6-foot-7, 205 pound small forward played in both the McDonald’s All-American Game and the Jordan Brand Classic this year and is expected to function as the Wildcats’ sixth man this season.

Gordon was ranked as the fourth best recruit in the country by ESPN and 247Sports.com and committed to Arizona in April, announcing his decision in a press conference before the McDonald’s All-American Game where he went on to score 24 points and collect eight rebounds, leading his team to victory and subsequently being named the game’s Most Valuable Player.

The San Jose, Calif., native won two state championships during his high school basketball career and was the leading scorer and rebounder for the USA squad that won the FIBA U19 world championship this past summer. He was also MVP of the world championships.

“He’s earned the right for people to talk about him,” Miller said. “His approach has been drop-dead professional. You have a sense that he is here to accomplish things, and part of what he’s here to accomplish is to win. His attitude is refreshing and can become contagious. It’s easy to be his teammate because I think his gift as a player is he does so many things well.”

— Follow Evan Rosenfeld @EvanRosenfeld17


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Updated December 8, 2021