IOWA CITY | The first time Brady Ellingson ever played basketball at the 19,000-seat BMO Harris Bradley Center was in fifth grade.
He was one of a bunch of kids invited to play in a “small fries’’ contest prior to a Milwaukee Bucks game. He may have dreamed then of coming back to play in Milwaukee’s downtown arena in a higher level game sometime in the future, but he probably didn't envision that he would be wearing a black jersey that said “Iowa’’ across the front.
But that’s what Ellingson will do tonight as he and his Hawkeye teammates take on Marquette in a nationally-televised 8:15 p.m. battle that is part of the new Gavitt Games.
“Everybody is asking me for tickets,’’ admitted Ellingson, who is from Sussex, Wis., about 20 miles northwest of downtown. “It will be really cool being back home.’’
It’s already been a pretty good week for the redshirt freshman. He came off the bench to toss in a career-high 20 points Sunday against Coppin State and has been the first man off the bench for the Hawkeyes in their two exhibition games and both regular-season games.
After a turbulent first year at Iowa, in which he was constantly battling a foot injury, he has emerged as perhaps the Hawkeyes’ most trusted substitute.
“The thing with Brady is he's an incredibly efficient player,’’ Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “He back cuts, he curl cuts. You look at him as a jump shooter, but he makes a lot of lay-ups because he always gets open. He's got a knack for getting open, and he handles the ball and he's got dribble moves much more than people think.’’
This is what McCaffery envisioned when he recruited Ellingson out of Hamilton High School in Sussex.
However, the kid’s first season at the college level was doomed when he showed up at the start of the summer with his foot in a walking boot. He underwent surgery during the summer, tried to come back and play, had more setbacks and finally had to be shut down after playing just 32 minutes in seven games. He was granted an extra year of eligibility as a result.
The year off turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Ellingson’s foot began to feel normal again near the end of last season and the injury is completely behind him now. In the meantime, he feels he has become a much more complete player.
“It helped a lot,’’ he said of the redshirt season. “Just going up against Pete (Jok) and Jarrod (Uthoff) every day really helped me get better defensively.’’
Offensively, Ellingson has been typecast as strictly a jump-shooter, but McCaffery said he knew a long time ago that the 6-foot-4 guard was going to be much more. He said Ellingson’s development in the past year has been mostly mental.
“What he has improved on is learning the system and growing in confidence,’’ McCaffery said. “He never got any traction when he showed up here in June in a boot … It took a long time for him to really be out there on the floor.’’
Ellingson has been back to the Bradley Center many times since that first visit nine years ago. He is a big Bucks fans and has attended a few Marquette games.
He also knows several Marquette players from his high school and AAU days, including star center Luke Fischer and starting guard Duane Wilson.
He said the game should bring a little extra shot of adrenaline, but he said there shouldn’t be any additional jitters from the fact that there will be so many friends and relatives in the stands.
“Everybody’s got their nerves out from playing the first game, including me,’’ he said. “I think we’re just getting out and taking stuff in the right direction now.’’