MINNEAPOLIS — When Richard Pitino first took over as the Gophers’ head basketball coach, sophomore Wally Ellenson had something to tell Pitino.
“He walked into my office and said, ‘I do the high jump.’ I said, ‘What does that mean?'” Pitino said. “I’ll be honest. At first I was a little against it. I just didn’t know what it was.”
Indeed, Pitino was unaware of Ellenson’s involvement with Minnesota’s track and field team. Not only did Ellenson participate in track after last year’s basketball season, but he thrived. The 6-foot-6 guard, who was also a track star at Rice Lake (Wis.) High School along with a basketball recruit, won a gold medal at the Pan American Games this past August by clearing 7-foot-1 on the high jump. Ellenson also took second in the event at the U.S. Junior Championships and earned First-Team All-America honors as a freshman.
Because the track season and basketball season don’t interfere with each other, Pitino had no problem with the sophomore guard’s involvement in another sport — something not seen often in this day and age.
“I did not know how good he was. For him to be that good in something, I wouldn’t want to take that opportunity away from him because he works hard at that,” Pitino said. “And it’s at a time where I think he can manage both. It’s really impressive what he’s been able to do, especially what he did in the spring.”
Ellenson’s basketball career at Minnesota got off to a slow start last season as he missed the Gophers’ first 11 games with a broken hand. By the time he did return, he had some catching up to do as he adjusted to a higher level of play. As a freshman coming off the bench, Ellenson averaged just 5.3 minutes per game and scored 2.0 points per contest.
A role player on the basketball court for Minnesota last year, Ellenson had a chance to break out as a star performer on the Gophers track team. He advanced to the NCAA Championships in the high jump, where he finished eighth. While still a member of a team, Ellenson loves track and field — and especially the high jump — because he alone determined his success.
“It’s always you against the bar,” Ellenson said. “It’s just all dependent on what I do. I can control it. I was healthy throughout the season. All the success I had was really a confidence booster for this game and the whole next few years coming.”
Ellenson says he hopes to continue participating in both sports throughout his college career at Minnesota. Now playing for a new head coach, Ellenson’s sophomore year is underway. He did not play in the Gophers’ season opener against Lehigh and has logged just 15 total minutes in two games against Montana and Richmond, both Minnesota victories.
While Ellenson’s stats haven’t jumped off the box score just yet — five total points and five rebounds in those two games off the bench — Pitino believes Ellenson can contribute to Minnesota’s rotation this year.
“He didn’t play a whole lot last year, so in my mind, I look at him as if he’s a freshman, so I’ve got to be patient with him,” Pitino said. “He’s very good offensively, doing a lot of really good things. He competes every single possession. He’s just got to continue to grow, continue to develop. What I love about him is every single day he competes, and that’s the most important thing this early in the game.”
Known as a scorer in high school (he averaged 20.1 points as a senior at Rice Lake), Ellenson knows he needs to focus on his defense in order to become a more complete player. He takes it personally when his defender scores on him, so he’s worked on using his quickness the right way on defense.
Offensively, Minnesota might not have a player who can jump quite like Ellenson. He can clear seven feet in the high jump, so dunking on a 10-foot rim is no problem for the Gophers sophomore.
“It helps me do reverse dunks, if that counts,” he said of how his track career has helped his basketball skills. “It’s still getting higher. I just can’t wait to see what I can do this year, on the court and on the track.”