Harris: City kid relishes City Game
Ron Everhart was looking for another J.J. Barea, a diminutive guard who starred for him at Northeastern and played a major role when the Dallas Mavericks defeated the Miami Heat in the 2011 NBA Finals.
Everhart found him not long after becoming the coach at Duquesne.
Timothy John (T.J.) McConnell Jr. is his name. A coach's son.
Everhart offered McConnell a scholarship after watching him play as a 5-foot-8, 125-pound freshman at Chartiers Valley High School. McConnell caught Everhart's eye after draining 3-pointers and stealing the ball from Jeannette star Terrelle Pryor in a game at Palumbo Center.
"People thought he was nuts for recruiting T.J. as a sophomore and putting his neck on the line and offering him a scholarship," said Tim McConnell, who coached his son in high school. "T.J. was small."
Less than two years into McConnell's high school career and three years before he would attend college, Everhart made a big-time commitment, unsure whether he had allowed his imagination to cloud his judgment.
Everhart's hunch was right: McConnell was named Atlantic 10 Freshman of the Year last season. As one of the few area basketball talents who didn't get away, McConnell — all grown up now at 6-1, 185 — will be a sight for sore eyes when Duquesne faces Pitt on Wednesday in the City Game at Consol Energy Center. He's the only player with Pittsburgh ties on either roster.
"I had just come off four years of coaching J.J. Barea at Northeastern," Everhart said. "The first time I saw T.J., the basketball coach in me fell in love with him."
The City Game is personal for McConnell. The other participants want to win because it's the next game on the schedule. It's different for McConnell, who grew up attending Duquesne and Pitt games. He heard stories about how big the rivalry was when the schools banged heads as members of the Eastern Eight.
His father is a legendary coach in the area. His aunt, Suzie McConnell-Serio, is the women's coach at Duquesne. His uncle Tom was the coach at St. Francis (Pa.) from 1992-99. Another aunt, Maureen, played at Pitt.
"It's a big game for me, but as a team, it's even more big," said McConnell, who averaged 10.8 points, 3.8 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 2.8 steals as a freshman and is at 11.5 points, 5.0 rebounds, 6.2 assists and 3.2 steals this season. "We want this game as bad as anyone."
The City Game is more than a game to McConnell, the fifth-leading scorer in WPIAL history, because Duquesne offered him a scholarship -- but Pitt never attended any of his high school games. He said the slight is nothing personal. He understands: He was undersized, and Pitt's Jamie Dixon heads one of the top programs in the country.
"Pitt never called," Tim McConnell said. "Never wrote a letter. Never came and saw him play. Coach Everhart saw something in him and really liked the way he played. He made a commitment to T.J., and we made a commitment to him. Whether Duke or Pitt or anyone else would have come knocking, T.J. was going to Duquesne."
Still, what could have been remains in the back of T.J.'s mind.
"Jamie Dixon is a great coach, and it would have been great to play for him," he said. "But I think Coach Everhart is a great coach — and I'd much rather play for Coach Everhart.''
Everhart said he hopes McConnell's decision to stay at home will help change the perception about Pittsburgh not being a basketball hotbed.
"My opinion of Pittsburgh basketball players is a little different than a lot of people," said Everhart, who grew up in West Virginia. "When I got here, I heard there haven't been a lot of Division I guys. When you look at the top-level kids, every one of them has gone to college and proven they're one of the best players on their team."
DeJuan Blair, who led Schenley to the 2007 Class AAAA state championship and played two seasons at Pitt, became an NBA regular as a rookie. D.J. Kennedy, Blair's high school teammate, enjoyed a distinguished career at St. John's.
There's also Marshall sophomore DeAndre Kane, a member of that Schenley state title team with Blair and Kennedy, who was Conference USA Freshman of the Year last season.
Kane turned down a scholarship offer from Pitt, as did 7-foot McKeesport center Zeke Marshall, now a junior at Akron. Former Moon standout Brian Walsh is now Marshall's teammate after originally signing with Xavier.
"People say the WPIAL is weak and not a lot of players come out," McConnell said. "People underestimate the WPIAL. There are a lot of good Division I players representing the city. People who think the WPIAL is bad, that's their problem. I'm trying to show that Pittsburgh players do have talent, and they can play."