Matty McConnell out to make a name for himself at Robert Morris
His coach's reaction to the successful 3-pointer puzzled Matty McConnell.
During a summer workout with the Robert Morris basketball team, McConnell rose up over a defender and made a shot from beyond the arc. Coach Andy Toole wasn't necessarily impressed and let the freshman guard know. He remembers McConnell giving him that look like, “What do you mean? It went in the basket.”
Toole said though the shot was made, it wasn't a “good” shot. It came with a defender in close proximity and there still were 18 seconds on the shot clock.
But that offensive aggressiveness Toole sometimes needs to rein in is the reason he lured the Chartiers Valley graduate to Robert Morris. McConnell is a scorer, and he is expected to play a big role for the defending Northeast Conference champions.
“Having guys who can make shots can really help your offense flow,” Toole said. “We've encouraged him from Day 1 to be ready to shoot the ball and to be aggressive in terms of shooting the ball.
“There's probably been very few times during the course of our workouts or practices where I've said, ‘That's not a great shot.' But again, that's part of his confidence in his ability to shoot and score (that) has allowed him to kind of emerge.”
McConnell (6-foot-2) gave a glimpse of what he could bring to the Colonials during an exhibition game Tuesday against Division III St. Vincent. He led Robert Morris with 23 points on 8-of-13 shooting, including 7 of 12 from 3-point range.
It was a meaningless game against a much smaller program. McConnell, though, saw it as an important step.
“I know it's D3, but it's still a college basketball game. It's my first one,” he said. “It really showed me that I can compete at this type of level and know that I can succeed on that level. It really boosted my confidence.”
Not that McConnell was terribly short on confidence. Being coached by his father, Tim, at Chartiers Valley and growing up playing one-on-one against older brother T.J., a rookie with the Philadelphia 76ers, groomed him for this moment.
Still, as steeped in the game as he might be, McConnell is far from a finished product. There is that occasional questionable shot, and his defense needs to be polished, something Toole said is the norm for most freshmen.
Improving his dribble-drive ability also will be necessary. Against St. Vincent, McConnell recognized that the Bearcats began guarding his 3-point shot more closely as the game progressed. Being able to go to the basket, McConnell said, will help to keep opposing defenses honest — especially once the competition begins to get tougher.
Toole is confident McConnell will be able to improve in those areas. The coach said McConnell has shown the ability to pick up corrections quickly and a willingness to ask questions.
“Every day in practice, he attacks those weaknesses and tries to turn them into strengths,” Toole said. “I think that's kind of the mindset that he's been brought up with and kind of the mindset he displays every day.
“He's got some of those intangibles that allow you to maybe exceed what other people's expectations are for you. He's a willing worker and a very talented player.”
And though he has a propensity for scoring, Toole said, McConnell is an unselfish player. He knows when to shoot and when to pass.
“I honestly just want to make it to the NCAA Tournament and win the NEC championship,” McConnell said. “I don't need any personal goals. I just want to get those championships.”
That mentality, Toole said, made it easy for the other players to embrace McConnell. Senior guard Rodney Pryor, a preseason first-team all-NEC selection, has become his mentor.
McConnell said Pryor always is there to offer advice or to correct something he might have done wrong. More importantly, he and the other Colonials urge McConnell to keep doing what he does best.
“Just be yourself and be confident,” McConnell said when asked what counsel the other players give him. “If you miss a shot, don't be afraid to take that next shot because you know that next shot is going in.”
Being himself is something else McConnell strives to do.
When you play basketball in the Pittsburgh area and your last name is “McConnell,” that carries a certain weight and expectation.
His aunt Suzie McConnell-Serio's success as a player and college coach and his father's status as one of the top high school coaches in the state set the standard. T.J. McConnell raised the bar when he made the 76ers as an undrafted free agent. (And it appears he will be in the NBA for a while. He is coming off back-to-back 12-assist games and had a near triple-double with seven points, nine rebounds and 12 assists Nov. 4.)
Now, it's Matty's turn. While his name might give him recognition, he insists it does not give him his identity.
“I'm always comfortable with who I am,” he said. “Everyone always says, ‘You're T.J.'s little brother,' but I see it as I'm just another McConnell. Everyone always tells me, ‘You're your own person. You've built what you've done.' I'm not really looking at it as I'm T.J.'s brother. I'm looking at myself.”
Chuck Curti is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @CCurti_Trib.