Moon Township, Pa. — I’ve written about Robert Morris guard Matty McConnell on more occasions than I can remember. The first time was in Philadelphia circa 2015, when – as a scrappy freshman making his collegiate debut – he recorded seven points, five rebounds, three assists and two steals in a one-point loss to Penn at the Palestra.
He shot 2 for 7 that night, far from a finished product, but you could tell from Game No. 1 that the gritty guard from Chartiers Valley possessed the required intangibles to one day end his career as a Robert Morris great. Sure, he came to the program having scored over 2,000 points with a WPIAL title in high school, along with a bloodline of basketball greats in the form of his legendary high school coach of a father (Tim McConnell) and – at the time – NBA-bound older brother (T.J. McConnell).
But his potential stemmed beyond that. Matty just had the “it” factor; unteachable basketball instincts coupled with a chip on his shoulder that led to earning a starting spot from the jump, a sense of fearlessness unwavered from often going toe-to-toe with the opposing team’s best scorer – be it in the Northeast Conference or against a Power 5 program. And, a fiery competitive streak that recovered for any disadvantage in size or lack in athleticism. “I don’t know what his vertical is,” says Robert Morris coach Andy Toole, “but it always seemed like he could jump however high he needed to jump to get a rebound or loose ball.”
These were qualities he displayed early on, and although they came in inconsistent flashes, at first, it was obvious this kid was destined for much more than an average if he could put it all together.
Four years later, it’s obviously safe to say he did.
By the time he was a junior, McConnell developed into a true leader for the Colonials. There was the 2017 Robert Morris-Duquesne County Game, when he blanketed guard Mike Lewis II – the Dukes’ leading scorer averaging above 14 points-per-game – to a scoreless night on a season-low eight shots. It was the third scoreless game of Lewis’ collegiate career, and whenever he touched the ball, McConnell had a hand in his face. Whenever he came off a screen, McConnell fought over top of it. Whenever he drove the lane, McConnell bodied him while maintaining proper positioning in order not to foul. Robert Morris won that game, 66-59, after McConnell’s steal-to-fastbreak layup with 1:23 left in the game swung momentum into the Colonials’ favor for good.
“I really prided myself coming into this game to try and hold Lewis scoreless,” McConnell bluntly (per usual) told me after the game. “As I did.”
There’s countless other notable performances from McConnell we could reflect on, but – unfortunately – it all came to an end last weekend. On March 24th – 128 games, 119 starts, 1,149 points, 515 rebounds, 301 assists and 249 steals later after that November night in Philly – McConnell walked off the court in his Robert Morris uniform for the final time. As seven seconds remained on the clock in a CIT loss to Presbyterian, he exited the game to a hug from Toole and a simueltaneous standing ovation from the North Athletic Complex crowd, while Chris Shovlin referred to him as a future hall-of-famer on the RMU broadcast.
And when Shovlin – an RMU legend and fellow HoF inductee himself – gives you that label, it comes with the utmost amount of respect and legitimacy.
McConnell proved those early signs of potential to be accurate, and hangs up his sneakers as one of the best to ever do it in Moon Township. He matched Jeremy Chappell as only the second player in program history to eclipse 1,000 points, 500 rebounds, 300 assists, 200 steals and 200 3-pointers in his career while finishing among the NEC’s top three in steals-per-game through all four years of his career – leading the league with a 1.9 mark as a senior.
“He’s grown a lot throughout his career,” said Toole. “Obviously, he had his best year this year, which I thought was awesome for him. We needed it. He was the most consistent he’s been. That was always the thing we worked on with him was the consistency piece. I think last year we were 13-5 in games he scored in double digits. This season, he was even more consistent, especially in shooting and scoring.”
Freshman (29 games): 6.8 ppg (31. 2 FG%, 26.3 3PT%, 67.9 FT%), 2.4 rpg, 2.3 apg, 1.9 spg
Sophomore (33 games): 7.3 ppg (33.5 FG%, 31.7 3PT%, 71.8 FT%), 4.4 rpg, 1.5 apg, 1.6 spg
Junior (32 games): 10.8 ppg (35.1 FG%, 29.9 3PT%, 79.6 FT%), 4.4 rpg, 2.8 apg, 2.0 spg
Senior (35 games): 10.6 ppg (39.7 FG%, 35 3PT%, 69.4 FT%), 4.7 rpg, 2.9 apg, 1.9 spg
McConnell’s career may not have produced an NEC title, albeit his influence went beyond wins and losses. A glaring quality that elevated him above his counterparts was a relentless approach to practice, when eyes and cameras weren’t on him.
“Matty’s a competitive kid, and you’d see that in the practice setting,” said Toole. “If he was having an off practice, you’d see it’d get under his skin, and up his intensity and energy level. It was (in practice) where we would really challenge him to do more, be more, and communicate better.”
His commitment, toughness, selflessness, steady improvement and equal efforts on the offensive and defensive ends embodied the RMU program’s former foundational culture, the one established by greats like Velton Jones, Ant Myers-Pate, Russell Johnson, Coron Williams, Karvel Anderson and Lucky Jones during the early days of the Toole era, which has faded ever-so-slightly with the changing age of Division I college basketball.
There’s a reason the Colonials went 110-65 in Toole’s first five seasons, but 58-75 in the four since. Blame it on the transfers, the risks on players with high ceilings but low character, a tightened gap in the NEC or whatever else you can pinpoint – but regardless, the winning identity of old just hasn’t been there. Although now at its conclusion, McConnell’s legacy and model for how to conduct yourself the right way both on and off the court has paved a lane for winning ways to return.
“I’m definitely going to miss it,” he said after the Presby loss. “I told the (team) that I just tried to lay the groundwork for them.”
McConnell didn’t just try in that aspect. He succeeded.
The Colonials will return nearly their entire team next season, all having learned from McConnell’s example. “He had been through every experience you could imagine as a college basketball player,” said Toole. “Now, into his senior year, with the number of minutes he had played and the ups and downs, he could speak to those experiences with the younger guys. It really helped them along the way”
With a talented roster littered with experience and increased momentum stemming from a move to the new UPMC Events Center, next season could be the year that Robert Morris finally puts it all together again – a 20-plus win season, conference title, and trip back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since the 2014-2015 season. Could it happen? Maybe.
McConnell wouldn’t be directly responsible for it, but best believe … he’d deserve just as much recognition as anybody else.
Q&A with Matty McConnell
Q: Knowing everything you know now, what would you have told your freshman self as to how to approach the entire process of your college basketball career?
A: I probably would’ve just told myself to stay with it and just keep working hard and good things will come. I know we didn’t win (a championship), but I still think I had one of the best senior years ever that I could ask for. I had a hell of an 11 teammates and they made this senior year something special to me. I thank them for that.
Q: How much has your relationship with Andy Toole played a role in your development?
A: In practice, he sees things that most coaches in the country don’t see. He brings that out of you. He has this saying where, “We’re going to push you to be uncomfortable.’ He does exactly that. He’s made me a better person, a better player for doing it. I just thank him for pushing me every day and making me the player that I became. I think he’s one of the best Xs and Os coaches in the country. So, for anyone not to listen to him with Xs and Os, they’re not a very smart person.
Q: What were some of the things he told you during the recruiting process that drew you to Robert Morris?
A: He didn’t bullshit me. He just told me straight up. ‘You’re not going to just come in here and start right away. You’re going to have to fight for it.’ I got real comfortable with that because I didn’t want to go to a place where I was going to walk in as a starter that easily. I wanted to show people that I could fight for it and that all the work I put in would actually pay off.
Q: Did any teammates in particular make an impact on you during the early stages of your career?
A: I think Rodney Pryor and Kavon Stewart. Those are the guys that are always one phone call away. I know if I reach out to them they’ll answer. I saw Kavon when we played Fairleigh Dickinson, and I talk to Rodney almost every week just to check in. Those two were big supporters and a big help in my early years of being here.
Q: What particular details did they show you?
A: Just the ins and outs and the little things that some players don’t see – in the zone, rotations that some people don’t know. It gave me a head start, propelled and pushed me to be the player I am.
Q: How did your relationship with your brother help you through the process of your career?
A: When I came here and when he made the Sixers, I knew it was going to be hard for him to make some games. But he did his best and I’m thankful for that. I just knew that he was always there, texting me to keep my head up after losses and just to keep pushing. I know any advice in life or basketball, he’s given it in my best interest. I couldn’t ask for a better brother.
Q: Are you going to pursue professional basketball or was this your final game?
A: After talking with my parents, I think this is going to be my final game. I’m going to try to get into coaching around Pittsburgh and start my life here. I’ll always still be involved with basketball, but I think I’ve played my final game.
Q: That must be a difficult feeling to experience, right?
A: It’s definitely tough. I knew it was going to come to an end some day, but I didn’t want it to be today; have it be today is surreal. I’ve been playing basketball for 16 years, and to know that I’ve played my last competitive game, it’ll kick in soon. It’ll be a sad moment, but like anything – life moves on. I’ll move on from it but I’ll always still be involved with Robert Morris and basketball.