Gophers opt to lift Wally Ellenson's redshirt 12 games into season
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MINNEAPOLIS -- When Gophers coach Tubby Smith motioned for Wally Ellenson to check in for what would be his collegiate debut, a feeling of nervousness surged through the true freshman guard.
"He said his body was in shock, because his was in a relaxed mode and then coach called him and he was like, "Ohhh,'" sophomore guard Andre Hollins said with a grin Tuesday after the Gophers' 70-57 against North Dakota State.
Ellenson was granted his wish to play in his first year on campus.
In a surprising move, the Gophers lifted Ellenson's redshirt 12 games into the season. After mulling over the situation for an extended period, Smith met with Ellenson and his parents on Monday night. They came to the conclusion that the Wisconsin native would begin his initial year eligibility, despite the season already being nearly six weeks old.
"He wanted to play. His parents felt comfortable with wanting to play," Smith said. "They were all in agreement that lets get him in there and get him going, see how he does and go from there."
Ellenson's debut was brief. He entered with under four minutes to go in the second half and the Gophers' holding a comfortable 16-point lead. Fighting through obvious first-game jitters, Ellenson committed a turnover within 30 seconds of stepping on to the court before sinking one of two free throw attempts.
"He looked different out there without a practice uniform on," senior forward Rodney Williams said. "It's definitely good to see Wally out there. He's been waiting a long time. He finally got a chance. Hopefully we'll seem him more."
Ellenson's season was derailed before it could begin when broke his left hand in practice in late October. He was kept him sidelined for four weeks. The injury seemed to make it likely the Gophers would preserve his redshirt, as they had already opted to do with fellow freshman Charles Buggs.
However, the Gophers waited to see how Ellenson progressed through the recovery process. He returned to practice in limited fashion during the last week of November. Smith avoided making a final decision on Ellenson's status until he had several practices to observe him after he was cleared for full contact.
Known largely for his dunking ability, the 6-foot-4 combo guard averaged 20.1 points per game and 8.9 rebounds last season for Rice Lake High School (Wisc.). Smith hasn't defined what Ellenson's role will be this year, but feels there is a spot for him in the Gophers' already crowded backcourt.
"He's going to be a good player for us," Smith said. "Wally has got a tremendous amount of talent and athleticism. I think he will help us."
Under Smith's rules, freshmen are not allowed to speak with the media until the team's first Big Ten game.
Smith's willingness to allow him to play right away may also be tied to the Gophers' current pursuit of Ellenson's younger brother, Henry. The 6-foot-9, 250-pound high school sophomore, is rated a four-star prospect by Rivals.com. Along with the Gophers, he is being recruited by Kansas, Iowa State, Georgetown and Baylor.