I’ll admit, when an entire half passed on Saturday against Lafayette and Gophers freshman Wally Ellenson didn’t play a minute, I thought things were looking pretty dim for him.
Coach Tubby Smith had said the day before that he was concerned about how many minutes the wing would get, frankly remarking that Ellenson was “way behind” in knowing the plays and that practices had been tough for the freshman.
And let’s be honest – Smith typically plays a LOT of guys in the first half. Generally, if you’re in the rotation, you’re getting time in the first half. Meanwhile, Oto Osenieks – a guy tabbed as possibly the player who would lose minutes with Ellenson’s redshirt getting pulled – was playing his heart out and having his best game of the season.
But after the break, with 15:14 remaining in the game, in trotted Ellenson, playing the rest of the game and giving us a few “Hmm” moments.
In retrospect, it was a great opportunity for Ellenson, who entered after the game was clearly a blowout, but who made the most of his chance and inspired praise from Smith afterward.
Ellenson was on the court for 10 minutes before he scored, but when he did, it was an impressive reverse dunk off a ball Osenieks had popped up in the air near the basket as he tried to gain control of it. Then, less than two minutes later, Ellenson followed with a 3-point shot. Just as encouraging were the four boards that Ellenson pulled down.
I’m a big believer in the way confidence can affect performance, and so I think last night’s game was big for Ellenson – playing extended minutes like that, and most of all, succeeding in them – will allow him to not play scared anymore. He’s achieved something.
“I thought Wally did some spectacular offensive rebounding and the dunk over his head and he knocked down a three, so he’s starting to get comfortable and do the things we know he’s capable of doing,” Smith said. “As he improves, as he continues to get confidence, he’ll see more playing time.”
If Smith wanted Ellenson to justify his decision to take away the redshirt this year, he hinted at that Saturday. The Gophers are still a deep team with many other weapons in tow, but as last night showed, the depth and very, very, very long bench can be a strength as long as everyone contributes. Ellenson won’t consistently get 15 minutes in Big Ten play, but he showed Saturday that he is capable of being in the mix.