Sam Maniscalco is just what the doctor ordered for the Illinois basketball team. That is, a healthy Sam Maniscalco. After two ankle surgeries and a prolonged, painful recovery process, he is closer to playing condition but still isn't 100%. How quickly he can regain confidence in his ankle will go a long way toward determining the Illini's potential for success in 2011-12.
Maniscalco underplays the significance of his health problems.
"It's aggravating, but I'll get there. I'm mostly focused on this team and what we've got to do to be successful this year. It's in the back of my mind. I'm focused on this team. So far so good."
Illinois coach Bruce Weber has sat him out of a couple practices, realizing he needs his only senior for the whole season and not just the first few games.
"The nice thing is, he's in a Master's program. He doesn't have as much class time as the other guys, so he's been able to come in almost every morning for treatment. We've done a lot of underwater therapy and conditioning, and I think it has all added up. He feels good.,P>"But I've got to do a good job. We've got to watch him. He's got enough game experience and knowledge of the game that we can sit him out off and on. Hopefully that will keep him fresh so we have him once we get into January and February."
Maniscalco is excited for one final season. He describes what he looks forward to most.
"Playing again in a team atmosphere and working hard with the guys. I've been away from that for over a year now. It was tough sitting down and watching. It was new to me; it takes a mental and physical toll on you. But we have a great group of guys here, and I feel very comfortable here. They've done a good job of welcoming me, along with the coaching staff and administration."
Assuming he can stay healthy, Maniscalco believes he can be an asset to a young Illini team.
"I'm trying to do anything I can to help this team be successful. I think I bring some leadership, I think I bring some toughness and some intangibles to the table.,P>"D.J. (Richardson) and Brandon (Paul) have done a good job of being leaders this off season, especially with conditioning and things. I want to help these guys, lead by example and share my experiences with these guys to help us win basketball games."
As the oldest man on the team, others look up to him. He realizes teaching his teammates how to play the game is one of his most important functions.
"Absolutely. I've got to put myself in their shoes. I was a freshman once too. A lot of this stuff was new to me when I got to Bradley. I struggled with some of it at first, but I had older guys and coaches that helped me along. That's what I'm trying to do with them, share my experience.
"And they've done a really good job. I think the big thing about the freshmen is they respond well to coaching, they respond well to teaching. And they want to be good, they want to be better. They work hard, and that's all you can ask for. We're hoping to improve every day and hopefully be a finished product in February and March.",P>Maniscalco is a natural leader, but Weber explains it has taken him longer than expected to take over that role for the team.
"I thought maybe he'd be a little stronger, but going through the injury, he (hasn't been) feeling confident about himself. He's kind of done it slowly and surely and is starting to step up. The better he feels, the more confident he is, the better he's played, he's started to take more of a leadership role.
"It's tough to be a leader when you're not out there all the time. And he was worried about himself and his ankle. I think it was a lot slower process than he ever imagined. We haven't experienced that. He had two surgeries, and it took a little longer. That was part of him maybe being a little unsure of himself on the court and probably as a leader."
Weber believes a prior relationship with his new teammates will help Maniscalco when he is ready to assume a leadership role full time.
"He knew a lot of our guys. He either played with them, or through AAU, guys played in the same program he was in. Those guys as alumni go back and play with the kids in the spring and fall. So he has a relationship with a lot of them."
When he is ready, Maniscalco believes the Illini will be receptive to his leadership despite his being a newcomer.
"I think it presents its challenges, but at the same time, when you have a good group of guys like we have here that want to work hard, that want to be taught and be good, that helps a lot. It's a very coachable group of guys. They come in every day with a good work ethic and the right mindset. I think that's all you can ask for.
"We have a very receptive group, especially the freshmen. They work hard, and none of them has a hidden agenda. They're all about the team. They all want team success. As long as they put team success ahead of individual success, I think we can be successful. I think we have a pretty close-knit group. If we come together instead of pulling away during adversity, we'll be okay."
Besides being a leader, Maniscalco figures to start at point guard and use his intelligence and overall court savvy to set up his teammates for open shots. He can hit the open shot and is good under pressure. And he can make up for his 5'-10" height and lack of great quickness on defense with intelligence and upper body strength. Weber loves his potential.
"His biggest thing is just his maturity and experience on the court. He knows how to play, knows what we're asking for. He studies the game; he's in as much as anybody. At this point, he just wants to learn as much as he can about what we're trying to do. That's what we really need. I hope that will rub off on our other guys."
Speaking like a true leader, Maniscalco is optimistic for the upcoming season.
"I think our potential is good. As long as we approach it with the right attitude and do the necessary things we need to do on a daily basis, we can be successful. We'll have ups and downs. But if we can have a good work ethic every day, it will pay dividends down the road."