ALAN ROBINSON: Once Dad's Teaching Stops, A College Coach Takes Over - As Dukes Everhart Learns Twice

March 3, 2011

By Alan Robinson Go

T.J. McConnell and Mike Talley are basketball players made in their fathers' image, which quickly becomes evident when watching them man the backcourt for Duquesne as true freshmen.

They're heady and instinctive. Their court sense steadies and reassures the older players who surround them. They know how to run a play, run a game, run a team, run all day. They're 18 going on 28, freshmen by eligibility but far more advanced than that as players based on their lifetime of closely supervised, on-court experience.

How difficult is it to be a starting guard at an upper-level NCAA Division I program as a non-redshirt freshman? Very difficult, because the learning curve is far greater for a player so young, the talent level so far advanced from which they were opposing only the year before.

There is so much to learn, so much information to process, so much growing to do, so little time to accomplish it. One moment you're playing in a WPIAL or PIAA playoff game in Pittsburgh or in a Michigan state tournament game in Detroit, the next minute, it seems, you're competing against soon-to-be NBA players at Xavier or Richmond.

So imagine doing it when the guard who plays beside you is sharing the very same experience.

Duquesne coach Ron Everhart doesn't hesitate to start Talley and McConnell, even though they form one of the few backcourts at a top-tier NCAA school composed of true freshmen. Kentucky starts Brandon Knight and Doron Lamb,but it is an exception and so are the players; both were ranked among the Top 50 nationally last season.

To which both McConnell and Talley both say, "Thanks, dad."

Everhart might be reluctant to give so much playing time, so much responsibility to Talley and McConnell in the same season if they weren't coaches' sons. Everhart himself is the son of a former coach, Ron Everhart, but he didn't play for his dad in high school. McConnell and Talley both did. For four seasons apiece.



Four seasons filled with a lot of wins, but also with numerous tough practices, the inevitable talk - at least early in their careers - that they were on the varsity because dad was the coach. Both were exceptional as high school players, so such talk was quickly quieted, but it wasn't always easy being the coach's son.

It could be difficult when they shared the same court, rougher still when they shared the same house.

"My freshman year, I messed up the plays a lot, because it was my first time running them and he just got on me," said T.J., a rare freshman starter in high school. "I was mad at him for a couple of hours, but I knew he was just getting on me because he loved me and wanted me to get better."

Of course, it wasn't always easy being the father who coached his son, either. Just ask Mike Talley Jr., who coached Mike III at the Academy for Business and Technology in Melvindale, Mich., or Tim McConnell, who coached T.J. at Chartiers Valley High School in Pittsburgh's South Hills suburbs.

The son always had to work harder, practice longer, do more in the summer because, otherwise, the coach would be accused of favoritism. And if the son made a key error that contributed to a loss, dad felt doubly hurt; he wasn't just a coach who lost a tough game, but a father who also felt badly for his son.

Maybe the winning was twice as nice when father coached son. But, likewise, the losses were twice as hard.

Luckily for Talley and McConnell, their high school teams didn't lose often.

"The worst times probably were the practices after a loss," Talley said. "He'd just be on me the hardest. I was a senior and I had to be the leader. ... There would be tension, but it's all because he wants to win - he wants me to win. Not just on the court but off the court, too. He wants me to be successful in life."

"After a game we lost, my dad and I didn't talk for a week straight," T.J. McConnell said. "It was two people butting heads and we're both stubborn. When we lost, it wasn't pretty."

Last season, when T.J.'s 34.4 points per game scoring average was the second-highest in the WPIAL (Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League) in 25 years, Char Valley lost only twice, both to state champions. The Colts were beaten by Ohio titlist Massillon Jackson and Pennsylvania Class AAA champion Neumann-Goretti, a national Top 10 team that struggled to beat Char Valley 65-63 in the title game as McConnell had 32 points, 12 rebounds and five steals.

"It was pretty emotional after that game," T.J. said. "He told me he was going to miss me playing for him, and I told him I was going to miss playing for him. It was a great experience playing for him for four years. You'll never see a coach like him in the WPIAL again."

This season, despite losing arguably the school's best player ever in T.J. and moving up to Class AAAA, Char Valley is back in the WPIAL finals under Tim McConnell following a succession of upset victories.

"It's a testament to how good a coach he is," T.J. said. "He's one of the smartest guys when it comes to basketball. He helped me out a lot and I'm really, really thankful for that. I'm not here (at Duquesne) if it wasn't for him."

Tim McConnell wasn't there Wednesday night - his team was beating Mount Lebanon in the WPIAL semifinals - when his son had one of the best stat lines of any guard in major college basketball this season. T.J. had 12 points, nine assists, eight rebounds and five steals during a much-needed 70-64 victory over St. Bonaventure that gave Duquesne (18-10, 10-5 in the Atlantic 10) its first 10-win conference season in 20 years.

"That's like Oscar Robertson numbers," Everhart said of McConnell's performance.

The Dukes wrap up the regular season Saturday at Richmond (23-7, 12-3), which already has clinched a first-round bye in the A-10 tournament. Duquesne can secure one if it wins or Rhode Island loses to St. Bonaventure.

Everhart received a commitment when McConnell was a 5-foot-7 high school sophomore. The fifth-year Dukes coach was just as eager last year to recruit Talley, the fast-as-polished glass guard who averaged 31.1 points and 8.1 assists on Michigan's 2010 Class C state champions.

As Talley went through the recruiting process - he was interested in Providence, Detroit Mercy and St. Bonaventure - he leaned heavily on his father, who played at Michigan from 1990-93.

"The main thing for me was his experience. He's been through the whole recruiting process and playing in college and going through adversity," the younger Talley said. "He could give me the kind of advice no one else could give me, the inside stuff. It's really a blessing."

Everhart believes there often are special qualities about a player whose father is a successful coach.

"They understand the sense of urgency about everything - how the game should be played, when you have to step up and charge, when you have to step back and be a distributor," Everhart said. "When you have to be a defensive stopper and when you have to provide defensive help."

Both McConnell and Talley had difficult games as the Dukes lost 61-52 at Saint Louis on Feb. 26. They had only seven points between them, with McConnell scoring four, and they were ineffectual defensively as Billikens freshmen guards Mike McCall (18 points) and Jordair Jett (14 points) scooted around them to enjoy big games.

The must-win game against St. Bonaventure was much different, as McConnell was all over the floor making plays, forcing steals, setting up teammates for baskets. Talley was limited to 15 minutes as Sean Johnson came off the bench to score 19 points, but he contributed five points, two rebounds and set an early tone with his defensive pressure during a night in which the Dukes forced 23 turnovers.

"(As freshmen), they're way above the learning curve," Everhart said. "The great thing from a coaching perspective is you don't have to coach that. It's a great luxury to have."

For the season, the 6-foot-1 McConnell - a top candidate for the A-10 rookie of the year award - averages 10.9 points, with 82 steals, 125 assists and 109 rebounds. He ranks fifth nationally in total steals and ninth in steals to turnovers. The 5-10 Talley averages 7.1 points and has 66 assists, 42 rebounds and 17 steals.

Both can be suffocating defenders - McConnell because of his quick hands, Talley because of his quick feet - who create havoc for much-bigger guards.

"We come from two different parts of the country and coaches are different. But it's all the same," Talley said. "He (T.J.) said his dad wanted him to take over in high school, but now we're not playing at that type of level, so we have to take over the game by being smart, running the team, being generals. As freshmen, we've got so much to learn, still, but I think we're coming along. As the season has progressed, I think we've gotten much better."

Interestingly enough, Talley and McConnell both came to Duquesne in part because Everhart, who can be a demanding perfectionist one moment and a fatherly-like friend the next, reminds them of their fathers.

"They're both tough, they both want to win and they're both good guys off the court, too," Talley said.

"They're spitting images of each other," McConnell said. "They're both really great coaches and know what they're talking about. Both are very intense. I wouldn't play for anyone other than my dad or coach Everhart."

The best part about being starters as freshmen; both McConnell and Talley have three seasons of eligibility remaining. Three more seasons to get smarter, bigger, faster, quicker and more irritating to opposing guards.

"When stuff gets tough, we've got to be the ones to pull everyone together," Talley said. "It's tough (starting as a freshman), but it's going to benefit us. When we're seniors, it's going to be our (team)."

It might be already.

Thanks again, dad.


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