TUCSON, Ariz. – Arizona added two of the nation's best incoming freshmen to a roster already filled with talented players. The Wildcats are coming off a round of 16 appearance, have good size and loads of versatility.
For the hype surrounding the program, 6-foot-1 junior T.J. McConnell could make the biggest difference.
A transfer from Duquesne who sat out last season, McConnell gives Arizona the one piece it had been missing: a true point guard.
"He sees everything on the court," Wildcats junior guard Nick Johnson said. "I know he hasn't played in a year, but he's going to add so much to this team."
Arizona had a superb 2012-13 season, winning 27 games while reaching the regional round of the NCAA tournament for the second time in three years.
The one thing holding the Wildcats back was the lack of a true point guard. Senior Mark Lyons was a great leader and led the team in scoring but was not a distributor, something that hurt Arizona at times.
McConnell is a pass-first point guard who can also shoot, giving the Wildcats a double dose of what they need most.
In 2011-12, his final season at Duquesne, he averaged 11.4 points, 5.5 assists and 4.4 rebounds. McConnell shot over 50 percent, including 43 percent from the 3-point arc, and his assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.5-to-1 in 2010-11 was sixth-best by a freshman in NCAA history.
More than the numbers, McConnell is a natural leader, quiet but intense, one of those players who's not going to back down from anyone, whose work ethic will rub off on Arizona's younger players.
"I think my role has changed a little bit," McConnell said. "I just try to lead by example, show my team how I work hard every day."
It won't be just on the offensive end, either.
Though he's not as big or athletic as many of the players he faces, McConnell has great anticipation and quick feet. He's a superb on-the-ball defender and even better with help defense, jumping into passing lanes and snatching balls away from unsuspecting players.
McConnell averaged 2.8 steals per game in each of his first two seasons at Duquesne, which was fourth nationally his freshman year and third as a sophomore.
Arizona already has a solid defensive team with players like Johnson, Brandon Ashley and 7-foot center Kaleb Tarczewski. The addition of McConnell will allow the Wildcats to be more aggressive, maybe mix in some trapping and full-court pressure with coach Sean Miller's attacking man scheme.
"As much as everyone focuses on offense, to me one of the things we have had a problem with in recent years that I believe T.J. can solve is his ability to defend — not only the man he is guarding, but just playing team defense," Miller said. "He's tenacious on defense. He has a gift in terms of being able to steal the ball."
He's also itching to get back out on the court after sitting out an entire season.
McConnell will have an advantage over Arizona's other newcomers in that he's familiar with the returning players on the team, having built up chemistry with his teammates while practicing with them all last season.
"It made me better sitting out a whole year," McConnell said. "I was able to work on all aspects of my game and I'm glad I did it."
So are the Wildcats.
Miller has put together one stellar recruiting class after another since arriving in Tucson, and his latest brought Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, two of the top incoming freshmen in the country, to the desert.
Arizona still has a strong core with Johnson, Ashley, Tarczewski and Jordin Mayes, and Peters should give the Wildcats extra shooting after being cleared to play this season following his transfer from Kansas.
Add McConnell into the mix and the Wildcats enter the season with expectations that are high even for a program with a history like Arizona's.
"We like having those kinds of expectations," McConnell said. "Now we just have to go out and show that we can live up to them."
With McConnell running the show, the Wildcats should have a good shot at it.