Illinois head basketball coach Bruce Weber asks Illini fans to help him pay tribute Thursday evening to two seniors who have worked hard to make the program a success despite not having been here all four years.
"We've got Senior Day, honoring our managers and our two seniors. Neither one of them has been with us that long, but they've been really positive forces in our program.
"Jean Selus, nicknamed 'Canada,' is just a great kid. It's an unbelievable story. He had a dream. He wanted to come to the States, he wanted to play basketball and took a gamble. He went to a high school in Florida, through some people ended up at Parkland, and through some people including Coach (Wayne) McClain decided to be a walkon here.
"He's been a really good guy, a fun-loving guy. He's a great teammate. He could have gone to some other places, lower level places. But he made the decision. His family and he have really sacrificed; international tuition is close to $45-$50,000 a year. He's done it just to be part of the program. We really appreciate him and what he's given us."
Selus has provided good competition in practice, and he has served as translator for the French-speaking Ibby Djimde. He preferred attending Illinois over an NAIA program, and he feels it was well worth the sacrifice.
"It means a lot to me. I've enjoyed being around the guys and helping the guys get better every day. It was a tremendous experience and opportunity to reach my goal and play at the highest level of basketball."
Sam Maniscalco hoped to lead the Illini to the promised land as a fifth year senior transfer from Bradley. A balky ankle that didn't respond as quickly as needed to surgery reduced his effectiveness, but Weber sings his praises nonetheless.
"Sam Maniscalco took a chance on the fifth-year option. We knew he had to come back from the ankle surgeries. But I don't think we, the team doctors, Al Martindale or Sam could have envisioned the ankle would not be as stable as we had hoped.
"He started out the season great. He was All-Tournament in Cancun. He was one of the best players on the court in the Maryland game, scoring 24 points. He hit some big baskets.
"I think the wear and tear of college basketball took a toll. It's a shame. He fought through it for awhile, and then we had to sit him. I'm just so proud of him. It hasn't gone like he hoped, but he has really grown up since he's been here. We've had some really good heart-to-hearts the last 2 to 3 weeks.
"In life, when everything goes smooth, free and easy, it's easy to be the leader and do the things you need to do. But when it doesn't, it's hard. The thing that he has really done the last couple weeks is made a decision to have his heart and mind in the right place to help our team win anyway he can."Sam will tell you he felt sorry for himself. Talk about him having his heart in the right spot, he came to us a couple weeks ago and said, 'I should have been helping more. I should have been more vocal, but I was worried about my own situation instead of the team.' It takes some maturity and some gumption to do that. My hat goes off to him.
"I'm happy he finally made a couple shots. I thought the other night, there was a stretch at the end of the first half that he was playing the way that we had hoped, leading us and getting us into the stuff, making some plays.
"I've known him for a long time but only coached him for a short period. I'm just really proud of him and know he's going to be a success in life. He's talked about coaching, he's talked about broadcasting. I think deep down he'd still love to play the game. I don't know if he'll have that opportunity or not. We'll try to be there to support him.
"I hope for his sake what happened for him the other night can happen several times coming up. He can be a valuable member of our team, and we can have a great finish too."
Maniscalco could have been the leader Illinois needed desperately, but he lost confidence and wasn't as effective as he wanted to be. He is keeping a stiff upper lip, although he will likely regret his inability to help the team more throughout his life. He accepts the end of his one year at Illinois while continuing to put team needs ahead of self-interest.
"I'm looking forward to it, reminiscing about my whole career and everything I've been through. Every game right now is important, especially with the situation that we're in. We've got to keep approaching things with a positive attitude."
Michigan presents a daunting challenge to Illini hopes for a big finish to the season.
"We're playing a team that's really highly ranked RPI-wise," Weber reminds. "It would be a huge win for us. It would keep some hope alive."
Weber points to Michigan's leadership, no doubt a comparison to Illini failings in that regard.
"It will not be easy. They have won because of a mixture of young and old. The old guys have been the guys that seem to make the plays. Zach Novak and Stu Douglass have been there; their toughness, their leadership, their direction. (Trey) Burke doesn't do something right, and Douglas is over there correcting him.
"Michigan doesn't overwhelm you, they just steadily come. They have toughness. I think the biggest thing, he (Coach John Beilein) made a decision in January when they were really struggling; they went man-to-man and have been a much better defensive team.
"They're not complicated defensively, they're just very solid. They make you earn baskets, about like Wisconsin. The one thing he's done lately is transition. He's allowed them to get out and run. If they don't have transition, they're going to make you guard. They try to get the ball to their shooters in the right spots."
Weber utilized competitive drills in practices prior to the Iowa game to give his players the edge they need to play their best. Brandon Paul and Meyers Leonard came off the bench because others won more practice competitions. But they had great efforts upon entering the game.
"I think it was Brandon's second best offensive efficiency game. He was very solid. He scored 17 points on nine shots, and he did a great job on defense. Brandon had 14 on the MATTO (play-hard chart) also. That's a monster game, for him to be that active."
Paul admits a focus on defense helped his offense as well.
"I wasn't really looking for my shots first half, maybe playing a little bit too unselfish. As long as I was getting on the floor and getting my hands on loose balls, taking charges, I think I took three charges, I knew that was going to help the team. So I got back to that. It started creating opportunities for me to score. I think when I worry about the defensive side and putting out extra effort, I play better."
Leonard may have had his best all-around game as well according to Weber.
"Meyers played the game the way I had envisioned him to play all the time. He played both ends of the court. The best thing he did was, when he got into the game, he ran back in transition, blocked a couple shots, got the crowd involved. He played motivated."
If Paul and Leonard play that way all the time, the Illini have a chance against anyone. That is certainly Weber's hope for the whole team.
"I hope our guys are excited after Sunday. We are going to practice this week like last week, with everything competitive. Keep that edge, keep them motivated."
Weber hopes the fans show up ready to lend vocal support, not only for the seniors but to help push the team over the finish line ahead of the Wolverines.
"We have to lay it on the line Thursday night. I hope we have the energy from the crowd. With early games, it's sometimes tough to get there. We're hoping people show up early and are loud from start to finish, and we give them something to cheer about."