CHAMPAIGN — Like so many things during this swirling, sometimes-painful Illini basketball season, Sam Maniscalco’s journey has at times skidded sideways.
No matter how it turns out, we’ll always wonder how it might have gone had the only scholarship player who will be recognized at Thursday’s Senior Night ceremony managed to stay healthy.
To be fair, there was never a guarantee that would happen. Maniscalco missed nearly all of his fourth season at Bradley last year and two ankle surgeries later he decided to take advantage of an NCAA rule that would allow him an immediate extra year of eligibility if he enrolled in another school’s master’s program.
Hoping he could have one final, winning flourish in college basketball, Maniscalco transferred to Illinois, devoted his summer to rehabbing his injured ankle and dreamed of a Big Ten title and NCAA Tournament run.
“It’s every athlete’s dream at this level,” he said Tuesday. “I was more thinking about doing whatever I can to help this team and program be successful.”
If we fast-forward from the summer of 2011 to late February in 2012, what has happened with Maniscalco and the Illini has been anything but a dream come true. The team has gone from a 15-3 record in Janaury to the 17-12 mark it will bring to the floor Thursday against Michigan. Their coach, Bruce Weber, is under siege. And Maniscalco saw his promising early-season start disintegrate in pain to the point where Assembly Hall fans have muttered and quietly booed with disappointment whenever he has replaced freshman Tracy Abrams in the lineup.
It’s not that those fans dislike Maniscalco. They don’t know him. But they do know that his production has nose-dived in a downward arc equal to the plunge of the team. And they see a correlation there.
What’s difficult to remember is that through the first 14 games of the season, Maniscalco looked like he was fulfilling his dream. He was averaging 10.6 points a game, was helping Illinois get into its offense, had been named to the all-tournament team in Cancun and may have been the best player on the floor with 24 points in Illinois’ Big Ten/ACC Challenge victory at Maryland.
He scored 15 against Illinois State, 19 against Richmond. He scored 10 in the Big Ten-opening victory over Minnesota and his six assists and four steals were helpful in Illinois’ early December victory over Gonzaga.
Maniscalco may not have been perfect, but Illinois was a better basketball team with an experienced point guard.
But when 2011 turned to 2012, Maniscalco’s ankle literally ground to a halt, a bone-on-bone surrender to the wear and tear of college basketball.
“It’s a shame,” Weber said. “He fought through it for a while but we finally had to sit him.”
In the 15 games since, Maniscalco has been unable to play in four of them. In the 11 games in which he has seen action, his scoring average has plummeted to 1.3 points per game. Unable to get lift on his jump shot, he went scoreless in seven of those games and not until last Sunday, in Illinois’ slump-busting victory over Iowa, did Maniscalco even resemble the player we remember back in December.
His five points, four rebounds and four assists seemed like a virtuoso performance after nearly two months of pain and frustration.
Weber said in addition to the pain, Maniscalco fought through a range of emotions that included a bout of self-pity before a soul-searching conversation during which he pledged to Weber to be a more positive leader.
“When everything goes smooth, it’s easy to be a leader,” Weber said. “When it doesn’t, it’s hard.
“In the last couple of weeks Sam made a decision to have his heart and mind in the right place and do anything he can to help our team. Sam will tell you, he felt sorry for himself. He came to us and apologized and said, ‘I should have been helping more. I should have been more vocal. But I was worried about my own situation.’
“It takes some maturity to do that. My hat goes off to him.”
Maniscalco said during the “heart-to-heart” talk he shared with Weber, he simply promised to be the kind of player he’d always taken pride in being.
“There are a few things I’ve done all my life,” said Maniscalco, who attended Chicago St. Patrick High School before playing 111 games at Bradley. “One is to be a good teammate. Two is to always play my tail off. And three is to always be coachable.
“That’s how I approach every practice and every game.”
It would be nice to report that Maniscalco’s improved play against Iowa is a reflection of a vastly improved physical condition. Alas, his ankle is not magically free of pain.
“It’s a tough situation,” he said. “But it is what it is. I’m an athlete, a 23-year-old who has been through this before. If I had two ankle surgeries and have had a rough college basketball season so far and that’s the worst that has ever happened to me, I’m pretty lucky.”
NOTES: Athletics Director Mike Thomas said Illinois will accept a bid to the National Invitation Tournament if the team misses out on the NCAA Tournament and an NIT bid arrives.
But Illinois is not interested in playing in the lesser College Basketball Invitational. And because of conflicts in scheduling with Assembly Hall, Illinois would not be able to host a first-round NIT game.
. . . Thursday’s game against Michigan begins at 6 p.m. and will be televised by ESPN. Illinois has won 13 straight against Michigan at Assembly Hall, the longest active home-court winning streak over a Big Ten opponent. Michigan’s last victory in Champaign came in 1995.