Year one of Steve Wojciechowski at the helm of Marquette basketball didn’t go so great.
Not that his first season, which resulted in a 13-19 overall record, was all that surprising. A first-year head coach at a new program, within a treacherous conference, usually doesn’t add up to instant success—especially when replacing someone as successful as Buzz Williams. Those are some tough shoes to fill.
While there were — and still are — ideas of Wojo one day being the man to replace Coach K at Duke, and his potential as a head coach being high, a learning-curve of sorts should have been expected.
Year two, however, has begun in a way that is starting to show why all that promise that resulted in the projections for Wojciechowski was around in the first place. It would be ill-advised, though, to start with Marquette’s on-the-court successes this season without acknowledging its biggest victory in the Wojo-era.
Honestly, while we could argue about how good Marquette’s 10-2 record is this season—they’ve played a relatively soft schedule—the Golden Eagles wouldn’t even be in this great of a position heading into Big East Conference play had they not landed Henry Ellenson on the recruiting trail.
Ellenson was a 5-star, top-eight in the nation level (by most recruiting service websites) prospect in last year’s recruiting class. Most players of that caliber historically end up playing for John Calipari, Coach K, or other big-time programs that seem to fit the hype a prospect like that. Wojo, though, was able to convince him to come play for Marquette, and everything has quickly changed since his arrival on campus.
It could be argued that Ellenson has been better than advertised so far.
While other highly touted freshmen like Ben Simmons get all the pub for playing mind-bloggingly well, and others struggle to find the court in-bulk like Cheik Diallo, Ellenson is quietly having a monster season.
Through 12 games, he is averaging 16.8 points, 9.8 rebounds, and slightly over a block a game.
Let me repeat that: 6’10”, highly sought after prospect, Henry Ellenson, is somehow — magically even — quietly averaging nearly a double-double per game.
Normally, when any freshman has a season like this, even in this short a time period, people begin mumbling about the player being a top-five NBA Draft type of talent.
Wojciechowski relies heavily upon the freshman for success, too.
Ellenson attempts more than 13 shots per game, shooting over 45 percent from the floor, and must have the potential to be a solid shooter from distance, as Wojo allows him to attempt over three attempts from beyond the arc per game despite hitting only 26 percent of them.
In only one game this season, Ellenson’s fourth ever college outing, has he looked bad. It was in Marquette’s loss to Iowa, a game in which he only scored 3 points in. That was the only time he has looked like anything other than one of the best players in the entire nation. Not only one of the best freshmen, or best players in the Big East, but in the entire nation.
Granted, he’s no Buddy Hield, Melo Trimble, Ben Simmons, or the plethora of other humorously transcendent players the nation has this season, But, he’s not that far behind them that his name should be left out of the conversation completely. Really, even with all the insane talent trotting about the hardwood this season, there might only be two handfuls worth of players who have been better so far than Ellenson.
Some of that can certainly be attributed to playing such a ho-hum schedule—one which is riddled with the Chicago States of the world. It is easier to, you know, look like a beast while dominating Presbyterian and Jackson State. To be fair to Ellenson,though, he can only play against the competition that is put in front of him.
With Big East play starting on the 30th, it is imperative for Marquette that Ellenson’s production is a harbinger and not simply numbers earned by way of playing inferior competition.
The Big East is back. All the way back. Even though it is no longer the same Big East as many remember it, the league is as good as any in the nation. Save for St. John’s and its rebuild year, there’s no true “easy” games for any team making the dangerous trip through a vaunted Big East Conference. And, heck, even the Johnnies have shown a capability to play with the big boys, as they upset Syracuse earlier this season.
It is during that Big East schedule when we will find out how much better Wojo has progressed in his second year, and just how good (or great) Ellenson actually is.
There could come a time, honestly not that far down the road either, when Ellenson is being whispered as a sleeper-pick for All-American teams — provided he keeps with the pace and production that he has already forced upon the college basketball community.
The Golden Eagles obviously have other good players, and it seems as if Wojo is starting to show why everyone assumed he’d transition well from being floor-slap-hero to head coach. But whatever success the team inevitably does or does not have this season will be because of the play of Ellenson.
Now all we need is a good nickname for him. I am partial to “The Balding Eagle”, but am totally open to suggestions.