Point guard T.J. McConnell sat in the Arizona locker room at Staples Center, fighting another round of tears, his Wildcats career over.
Arizona had just lost 85-78 in the West Regional final in Los Angeles last March, buried under a barrage of Badgers’ 3-pointers, and with those wounds still fresh, McConnell offered a ray of sunshine for those worrying about the Cats in 2015-16.
He said the new starting point guard — Parker Jackson-Cartwright — is “way better than me.”
“He’s going to be better than I was here,” McConnell said. “I’ve said this before: Tucson is in great hands with Parker. I love him to death.”
Now, maybe that is just a pass-first point guard dishing out one final assist, but what if McConnell is right? In fact, he doesn’t even have to be right. McConnell set the bar so high last season that just being close to being right would do.
Jackson-Cartwright, a slippery-quick sophomore, is ready to take the reins of coach Sean Miller’s offense on a team that has four new starters but plenty of experience. We’ll have to wait and see how it all turns out, but you can’t say PJC will go into the season unprepared.
The little guy is ready to step into some really big Nikes.
“First of all, last year he weighed in the 150s,” Miller said of Jackson-Cartwright, who is listed at (ahem) 5-foot-10.
“He has always been a small guy. We knew that when he came here. He’s really close to 170 now. It’s amazing what 10 to 15 pounds of good weight means to someone like him.”
Jackson-Cartwright said Miller might be (ahem, again) selling him short.
PJC said his weight is into the 170s, and he’s added about 20 pounds, thanks to good ol’ work in the weight room and paying attention to nutrition.
“You have to put the right things in your body in order to change your body,” he said. “That’s just the facts.”
McConnell was an old soul at point guard. Clever. Crafty. His 238 assists last season rank second on Arizona’s single-season list. His 83 steals rank third. He averaged 10.4 points and had an assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.1-to-1.
Jackson-Cartwright averaged 2.9 points and 1.8 assists in 9.6 minutes per game. He likely will prove to be a better 3-point shooter than McConnell, although he’ll have to show that over a larger sample size. No doubt, he should be one of the quickest point guards in the Pac-12 and will be even more unafraid this season to go through the tall timber to get to the hoop.
“I feel great. Probably the best I have ever felt,” Jackson-Cartwright said of the extra muscle.
“It helps. It definitely helps. Going through the lane, not getting knocked down, being able to endure a long season, as well as a long game, it’s really helped.”
And, in what is sure to be music to Miller’s ears, it should help his defense. Not that it was bad last season, but this is another area in which McConnell excelled.
“I would say just being tougher on the ball,” Jackson-Cartwright said of how his defense has improved. “Last year, I think I gave guys a little too much room. And at my size, I need to be up on the ball, where I can kind of negate that.”
Yes, that size.
Jackson-Cartwright is so used to hearing jokes and jibes about his stature that when a reporter starting asking a question about what others were saying about his size, the baby-faced sophomore immediately assumed the worst.
“Yeah, I get it every day — ‘I need a diaper change or I’m a baby.’ Stuff like that,” he said. “I’ve gotten used to it. It doesn’t really bother me.”
Well, actually, the question was about how others are reacting to his new bulked-up self.
“They’ve definitely noticed it,” he said.
His teammates say, indeed, they have.
“He’s bigger. He’s more physical,” said senior guard Gabe York.
“Wish I could say he grew a little bit, but he’s still 5-8 1/2, 5-9. He’s taking care of the ball really well, passing, distributing and understanding that his role is as a pass-first point guard. When he needs to score, he’ll score, but he’s taking over this team as a floor general.”
Jackson-Cartwright is the only true point guard on the roster. Arizona has a trio of combo guards — York, junior college transfer Kadeem Allen and freshman Justin Simon — competing for backup minutes at the point.
A new era begins. Because of his size, PJC isn’t a guy who is going to run off early to the NBA. This could be his show in Tucson for the next three seasons for a program that is back in the national elite after back-to-back regular-season Pac-12 titles and consecutive appearance in the Elite Eight.
Remember the words of McConnell. Don’t worry about PJC.
“Running the team, he’s way beyond his years,” McConnell said in March.
“You guys don’t see him in practice, the way he kills me in practice most of the time. He runs the team. He can shoot. He can do it all. People underestimate him because of his size and that’s when he kills them.”