Richard Pitino was hired as Minnesota’s basketball coach on April 3. The first order of business in that situation is to start meeting with the players scheduled to return for the next season.
Pitino’s meeting with freshman Wally Ellenson included this information: Ellenson was competing as a high jumper on the track and field team.
“He didn’t understand at first,” Ellenson said. “He’s OK now. We’re going to talk after the season.”
Ellenson was a high-level basketball recruit out of Rice Lake, Wis. He said one reason for choosing Minnesota was an agreement that he could participate in two sports. The basketball coach signing off on that, Orlando “Tubby” Smith, is now working in Lubbock, Texas.
The two-sport schedule did put Ellenson through three hectic weeks at the end of April and into May. The daily schedule included classes in the morning, track practice, weight training and team workouts with basketball, and tutoring/study sessions.
“You’re tempted to sleep in in the morning, but you can’t do it,’’ he said.
Ellenson said “basketball is definitely my first love,” but he’s also motivated by the individual challenge of track and field.
“It’s just you,” he said. “In high jumping, you either get over the bar or you don’t. There’s nobody else to take the credit or the blame.”
Ellenson’s first event of the season was the Hamline Invitational on April 6. He cleared 7 feet, 1 ½ inches, a half-inch better than his top mark as a Rice Lake senior.
“They didn’t have a jersey for me, so they didn’t count it officially,’’ Ellenson said. “But it was a meet, and I competed, and I cleared the height, so 7 feet, 1½ is my career best.”
The official bests for Ellenson this spring are a pair of 6-11 ½ leaps — good for fifth place in the Drake Relays and third place in the Big Ten championships. That puts him in the delegation of 25 Gophers (in 13 events) who will be competing in the NCAA West preliminaries starting Thursday in Austin, Texas.
“It’s going to be great going back there,” Ellenson said.
He was in Austin with the Gophers basketball team two months ago, first for the 83-63 rout of UCLA, then for the 78-64 loss to Florida.
Ellenson didn’t play in either game. He played a total of 48 minutes in nine games, with 29 of those minutes in the Big Ten. Those are numbers you expect to see from a walk-on, not a touted freshman recruit.
The 6-5 lefthander broke his shooting hand before the first exhibition game. He missed 12 nonconference games. The expectation among the Dinkytown faithful was that Ellenson would redshirt.
That didn’t happen. It was advertised as a decision insisted on by Ellenson and his family, and against the wishes of Tubby.
“Looking back at how much I played, it would’ve been smart to redshirt,” Ellenson said. “They [Smith and his staff] told me one thing and that’s not what happened. Obviously, I wasn’t going to pull off my redshirt to play 48 minutes.”
This will look more like bitterness in print than it sounded in a conversation with Ellenson. What’s his lingering view of Tubby?
“He’s a good person,” Ellenson said. “As a coach, he’s demanding and taught me there’s a lot more to the college game than shooting the ball. I don’t have bad feelings, but there’s no doubt, this coaching change is going to be good for me as a player.
“[Pitino’s] style fits me, without a doubt. I’m better when a team is playing fast.”
Ellenson sees himself as a jump shooter and finisher on the break. He’ll also have to show the ability to play pressure defense to earn big minutes, if Pitino’s vision of what he wants in the Gophers actually comes to fruition.
The departure of Joe Coleman should provide more opportunity for Ellenson to start at small forward or as a third guard. Did Coleman’s decision to transfer come as a surprise?
“No … you’re on a team, you hear how players feel about a situation,” Ellenson said.
For now, Ellenson’s team is track and field, where there aren’t minutes to worry about … only the bar that menaces in front of you.
“One goal is to finish in the top 12 and qualify for the NCAA meet next month in [Eugene] Oregon,” Ellenson said. “What I’d really like, though, is to clear 7-foot-3 before this season is over.”
Patrick Reusse can be heard 3-6 p.m. weekdays at AM-1500. firstname.lastname@example.org