Sam Maniscalco is a point guard leader who starred at Bradley and hoped to do the same at Illinois, transferring as a fifth year senior. The Illini lack leaders; Maniscalco was needed badly to guide an otherwise young team.
Unfortunately, multiple ankle surgeries took their toll. Never 100%, he had a couple setbacks during the season that not only were discouraging but reduced Maniscalco's ability to lead the team. He finally decided to get back to what he does best. The Illini hope it's not too late in the season.
"I got a little bit away from myself. I was frustrated with my health and situation. I felt like I was not helping out the team like I knew I could.
"I went to Coach (Bruce Weber) before the Nebraska game, and we had a good conversation. I said I'm going to bring a positive attitude, I'm going to be a great teammate and try to bring energy and everything I can to help this team be successful. Fulfill my role."
In other words, he remembered his basic basketball philosophy.
"There's a few things I've always done growing up. One is being a good teammate, two is playing my tail off, and three is I'll always be coachable. That's how I approach every practice and every game on every team I'm on. When you have guys do that, I think it's easier to be successful."
Scoring five points and handing out four assists against Iowa renewed his self-confidence.
"It meant a lot, especially with the struggles I've been going through. I'd be lying to you if I said it didn't feel like a weight was lifted off my shoulder.
"But at the same time, my teammates have been great with me. The coaching staff has been great with me. I've kept a positive attitude. I've just tried to approach every game to help my team any way I can."
He still isn't 100%; that appears to be impossible at this point. But Maniscalco is not one to dwell on what can't be done.
"I feel okay. As long as I'm out there on the court participating, then I'm accountable for how I play. Am I going to sit here and say I feel great, no. But I'm as healthy as I can be right now with the circumstances. I put that in the back of my mind."
He admits he has been less effective as a leader after missing several games and being ineffective in others. But he compliments his teammates for taking over some of that role.
"It's tough coming off an injury. But I'm not going to make excuses for anything. I'm not looking for sympathy or a pity party. I'm an athlete, I'm a 23-year-old who's been through this before. If this is the worst thing that has happened so far in my life, then I can feel fortunate. It does affect you mentally to a certain extent. It is what it is."
As he reflects on his final college season, Maniscalco remembers his goals upon his arrival at Illinois.
"My dream coming here was to play in the NCAA tournament, win a Big Ten championship. I think every athlete dreams of that, but I was focused more on helping this team be successful.
"I didn't have one distinct goal in mind. First of all, it was getting to play basketball after sitting out the last season with my ankle. I was excited about that. But then bonding with my teammates, bringing my positive attitude and trying to bring everything I could to help this team be successful."
He has done that more than most realize, maybe including himself. Teammate Brandon Paul recognizes all Maniscalco has meant to the team.
"I think he's brought a lot of leadership. Obviously it's been tough for him. I think he's been a fighter. A lot of people haven't been able to see the stuff he's been going through. He's still fighting through it and trying to do what he can for the team. We appreciate all the stuff he's been put through."
Meyers Leonard has also benefitted from Maniscalco's presence with the team.
"The first week or so Sam was here, I really didn't say much to him. He was just kind of there. But after that, he kind of took me under his wing. We both like chili, so we'd go out and grab something to eat.
"We talk about a lot of stuff, not just about basketball. It was him mentoring me in a way. He's been very good to me, giving me pointers and telling me to keep my head on straight. To lead this team and be mature. He's been very important to me this year."
Maniscalco is a fighter. He still believes the Illini have a chance to do something special this season.
"We've got a chance in the next few weeks to make some noise. I think we took a good step on Sunday. I focused on being a good leader and saying the right things and approached it with energy and passion. I'm trying to bring that to the table."