The curious case of Matty McConnell

Robert Morris’ most experienced player is everything the Colonials need, but is it enough?

By @C_Cappella

Robert Morris’ most seasoned player knocked down the team’s biggest shot in the program’s most topsy-turvy game in years.

Matty McConnell is only a junior but by virtue of endless transfers and graduations the fiery, sometimes-hot, sometimes-cold shooting guard has accrued more years at Robert Morris than anyone else wearing the laundry.

With his team trailing by two and 15 seconds remaining in an improbable overtime during last week’s contest against St. Francis Brooklyn, McConnell took an inbounds pass, raced down the floor and finished an and-one bucket through Glen Sanabria.

McConnell knocked down the ensuing free throw for a one-point lead, then played picturesque defense on the Terriers’ final desperation heave that led to an 80-79 victory.

Two nights later, McConnell scored nine of his 15 points in the final 12 minutes of action to help RMU defeat LIU. The Colonials are now 10-7 and undefeated through two weeks of conference action, and McConnell is a big reason why.

There’s a lot – and I mean a lot – to like about McConnell’s game. He’s reliable, playing the largest percentage of minutes on the team. His on-ball defense is remarkable, making the backcourt pairing of himself and Dachon Burke one of the best in the NEC. He’s averaging 2.3 steals-per-game and is nationally ranked by KenPom in steal percentage (226th overall). He’s an excellent rebounding guard. He’s second on the team in assists-per-game. And he’s reliable around the basket, shooting 63 percent at the rim, according to Hoop-Math.com. That’s a team high, which is uncanny for a 6-foot-2 shooting guard usually finishing around taller players.

All of these are excellent on-court attributes. What is probably equally deserving of a 100-word paragraph is McConnell’s leadership.

McConnell’s role as a leader for an extremely young team – or at least my perception of him as a leader – is a perfect fit. From the very beginning, he’s just been different.

I always go back to a quote of his from February 2016, the worst season of the Andy Toole-era. RMU finished 10-22 and exited the NEC in the quarterfinals. It’s the only time in the past 10 years the Colonials didn’t qualify for the NEC semifinals.

The ship was in full Titanic mode after a five-point home loss to Central Connecticut State. McConnell was asked a question regarding the demeanor of himself and then-freshman-turned-transfer Isaiah Still. This was his response:

“We just, as the players that we are, we have a higher standard to the way we play than some other people on the team.”

I think that quote sums McConnell up perfectly. RMU is a proud program, most recently built up by the likes of Velton Jones and Anthony Myers-Pate. That toughness briefly escaped. Then there’s McConnell, just a freshman, saying fuck that.

The little things he does do not go unnoticed. The subtle swiping of the ball out of an opponent’s arms after forcing a tie up. The intensity and tone-setting on the defensive end. The positive reinforcement to teammates when times are tough. These are all things that leaders do.

McConnell reminds me of Velton Jones. The former point guard – who will no doubt be inducted into RMU’s Hall of Fame one day – wasn’t the most gifted offensive player when he stepped onto campus but god dammit he was a winner. Velton Jones would run through a brick wall to win a scrimmage. I get the sense that Matty McConnell would do the same.

A Jones-McConnell comparison might sound outrageous – especially because the former was a gifted passing point guard and the latter a shooting guard – but their shooting numbers hold up. Stats were collected through KenPom. Take a look:

Freshman year splits

>> Jones: 46/27/59; defensive rebound percentage of 8.2, offensive rebound percentage of 2.2.

>>McConnell: 42/26/67; defensive rebound percentage 7.4, offensive rebound percentage of 1.9.

Splits through junior season

>>Jones: 251-612 from 2 (41 percent); 120-382 from 3 (31.4 percent); 397-560 from the stripe (70.8 percent).

>>McConnell: 88-210 from 2 (41.9 percent); 114-408 from 3 (27.9 percent); 99-126 from the stripe (76.2 percent).

Ignoring the obvious differences in position and style of play, McConnell and Jones are extremely similar in terms of efficiency. On top of that, they were/are the peak of toughness and leadership for solid RMU squads.

All of this kind of leads into the final point, because the point guard of the past and the point guard of the present could intersect.

If not the best, McConnell was thought to be the most high-volume 3-point shooter entering the season. Last year he attempted 161 3s to 81 two-point shots. This season, despite an uptick in shots from the field attempts, the junior has still attempted 93 3-pointers to 65 two-pointers.

Last year I half-jokingly pointed out that McConnell’s 3-point shooting got exponentially better after his brother, a point guard for the Philadelphia 76ers, knocked down a game-winner in the face of Carmelo Anthony and my beloved Knicks. McConnell shot 38.4 percent from beyond the arc over his final 16 games from that point on.

It felt natural to believe that coming into his junior season, McConnell could replicate those numbers. Instead, he’s shooting 23.7 percent from 3-point range (seventh-best on the team) and is in the midst of one of his worst shooting slumps of his life. McConnell is 1-15 from deep in NEC play.

That is what’s most frustrating about McConnell’s season. He’s doing everything well – from rebounding, to knocking down clutch shots, to defense – except the thing he does the most of. The Colonials are scoring at the fifth-best (or worst, depending on your outlook) rate in the NEC. McConnell scoring at a clip closer to what he did at the end of last season could be the difference between a trip to the NCAA Tournament and NIT.

So how exactly does McConnell go about improving his 3-point shooting? Like Jones was, McConnell has been very good when attacking the basket and finishing around the rim. The junior needs to keep attacking. A split-second of hesitation by a defender for fear of closing out too fast could make a noticeable difference.

Another option could be playing McConnell more as a point guard. Not full-time, but maybe a little more than what we’re seeing. It would invite more pick-and-roll action, which leads to options for the ball handler.

This is where freshman point guard Jon Williams comes in. Williams clearly already has the trust of Toole, once playing a complete 40 minutes in a game. The kid has been excellent in just about all aspects of his game.

But one thing Williams has really struggled at is shooting inside the arc, connecting on just 4-of-23 shot attempts. Conversely, Williams is shooting 47.7 percent from 3, the 69th-best percentage in the country.

It’s kind of ironic how the shooting splits of the team’s point guard and shooting guard have flipped, but RMU’s offense could be even more dangerous if Williams is getting more spot-up opportunities and McConnell is the one driving to the rack.

The top of the NEC is crowded. Wagner and St. Francis Pennsylvania look like they’re in this for the long haul. Mount St. Mary’s, the defending NEC champs, looks to be on an upward trajectory. Don’t count out FDU with Darian Anderson and Mike Holloway, either.

The Colonials, like they are most seasons, will be in the mix for another NEC title. Matty McConnell will be a big reason why. But if his 3-point shooting doesn’t improve, he might also play a role in going home too early.

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