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Greska: Deconstructing the Ellenson narrative

Photo by Anthony Giacomino/ Paint Touches

Photo by Anthony Giacomino/ Paint Touches

I’m the kind of guy that will cry foul when national media isn’t paying attention to a certain story that merits it, and then pick it apart when it does, even if it’s a positive story. I did it with Reid Forgrave and his long look at Davante Gardner. I did it with Dan Hanner and his look at Buzz’ use of freshmen. Hell, I did it with one of my favorite writers, Jon Gasaway, in an article fawning over the Big East.

So take the rest of this column with a giant grain of salt. I’m just picky I guess, particularly when it comes to the national media, as it helps create lasting narratives that may or may not be accurate.

With that being said, I think Dana Oneil’s feature on Henry (and Wally) Ellenson is a bigger disservice to the program and to coach Wojo than ignoring the future lottery pick in the first place. 

If I knew nothing about anything and read that story, it would be a wonderful tale of family bonding at a small We-Think-We-Can school. So if I came across that, as a non-fan, it would make me pay a little more attention to this fella and his band of misfits. 

What’s the problem, then? Isn’t it good to let people know there is plenty of room on the bandwagon?

In the general sense, it is, but it creates this distorted view of what Marquette is and what Wojo is building. I’ll break down the most egregious parts, but do yourself a favor and read the whole thing.

Dana’s first oddity is downplaying Marquette’s basketball history.

“Ellenson is a freshman at Marquette, which frankly has more basketball history than LSU but isn’t a big sexy hoops brand-named school.”

LSU is a football schools that lands historic basketball players every decade or so and gets its fans to maybe watch a game or two. Marquette is a basketball first, second and third school that is basically stuck in its illustrious history. Al McGuire graces the court, jerseys, practice facilities, not to mention the hearts and minds of any MU fan. Nationally, I doubt anyone knows Marquette for anything other than basketball. Hell, they probably can’t name the state its in, but ask them about Dwyane Wade or Jimmy Butler, they will know exactly where they went.

But let’s give Dana a pass, MU has been down the past two years and has been anything but sexy. Even with the back-to-back-to-back Sweet 16s this decade, it’s not a blue-blood and doesn’t pretend to be. It’s a top-30 school with a fantastic history. 

The very next sentence slays me, though.

The Golden Eagles are in the still-trying-to-redefine-itself Big East as well as recreating their own program under Steve Wojciechowski.”

I know the country at large still has fond memories of the BEast of yore, but the Big East as it stands if fairly well defined. It’s a 10-team conference that currently has 3 top-10 teams. It sent 6 teams to the NCAA tournament last season, and despite March stumbles, was a top-3 conference in most metrics (RPI, KenPom, Sagarin). It is not and won’t be the conference it was, but it is not some scrappy league trying to take on the big boys. This is a narrative that was put to bed last year. 

The following graphs builds off of this arc. Why go to a lowly, unknown school when you can go to Kentucky or Michigan State? This is a completely valid question and the answer, Wally goes there, is the basis of the story.

Yet, she comes back to cliches that don’t hold up to scrutiny:

“The Big East is a viable, basketball-first alternative for small, Catholic schools such as Marquette but the challenges of going against the boundless coffers of the football schools remains daunting.”

As much as ESPN likes to forget, Marquette and the Big East are currently in a better situation financially than they were in the old contract. Yes, making $4 million is less than the$ 30 or $40 million the LSU’s of the world receive, but MU and the basketball schools never were getting big money to begin with. Of the $10 or so million each school received, the non-football schools only got a bit more than a million in the old Big East.  If you look at the data as it pertains to basketball spending and revenues, MU and the current Big East are in a better position than they were before. Basketball is THE sport, and is treated as such.

The rest of the article are quotes and anecdotes that build the family theme. It’s nice and expands on snippets we’ve heard. Yet, there are some questions I am left with. Why did Wally transfer to Marquette? Sure, the thesis is Henry followed Wally to MU, but why is Wally there anyway? Was MU the only school recruiting an Olympic-quality jumper with a great bloodline and a star brother?

Answering those questions may have led Dana to find out that, shockingly, neither is the first Ellenson to lace them up in the Blue and Gold. That would be their father John, who is mentioned a few times. That would lead to even more interesting questions like, what did John think of Marquette, seeing as he transferred out to rival Wisconsin in his playing days?     

And finally, I get the point of the article is simply to highlight the family bond that makes this a touching tale, but why did Marquette become a viable destination once Buzz left? That is not to Buzz bash, but rather highlight the impact Wojo had. He was in Rice Lake constantly that summer and fall, personally recruiting Henry. He built a top-10 recruiting class around Henry and designed a style of play that would highlight Henry’s many talents. 

All of these points are minor on their own, but taken together alter the narrative to: “Henry was going anywhere Wally was going,” which is what I came out with. No doubt Wally helped, as Henry himself says, but this was not some favor to a little-sister-of-the-poor.  

There is more to the Ellenson narrative than a simple quid pro quo. A story like this, though positive and good publicity, only reinforces a faulty narrative. As they say, perception is reality. 

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