Where would the Illlini be without Sam Maniscalco? What would become of their point guard situation if the three time team captain at Bradley, All-Missouri Valley second team pick wasn’t eligible after his transfer this season? Illinois didn’t play very well, but they did make it three straight wins in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, and snapped a three-game skid vs. Maryland in the event. It also makes it two in a row versus the Terrapins as Illinois beat them in Madison Square Garden in the Coaches vs. Cancer classic.
The illini won 71-62, largely because of Maniscalco who scored a game high 24 on 6-11 shooting, 5-8 from three. But what the stat book doesn’t show is how critical Sma’s buckets really were. One triple gave them their first lead since the opening minute 42-41 down the stretch. Another trey stretched the lead to 7 inside 8 minutes to go giving Illinois their first semblance of breathing room in the game. And when the Terps cut the lead to 5 with under a minute left, Maniscalco drove to the whole and got a huge bucket.
It all brought Illinois to 7-0 for the first time since 2006, and gave Bruce Weber his 200th win at Illinois (against 86 defeats- wow that’s a lot better than Ron Zook’s record was). The Illini also ended Maryland’s 13 game home non-conference and 6 game Challenge win streaks.
Mansicalco has been a much bigger scoring threat than anticipated. Also he can defend, set the table, and he’s a great passer. Yet he’s undersized (listed at 6 feet, if that’s true than I’m 6’1″ now) and he’s not very quick. But he’s tough and smart, and knows the game.
“He doesn’t look the part, I know he can’t dunk, but he just has that understanding of the game, angles, has that toughness, so I hope he gives us some stability, experience and maturity, and then that’s where he can kind of be the bridge in helping Tracy, helping Crandall, those are the two guys right now I feel can give us some major minutes,” Weber said at Illini media day.
“One of my strengths is using my brain and saviness, I’m not the strongest guy out there, the most athletic guy or the fastest, but using my experience and svainess is what I can do,” Maniscalco said at media day.
Indeed he kind of looks/sounds like a college basketball version of “Rudy.” And all those announcer cliches you hear about white basketball players “hard-working, heady, gritty, student of the game” certainly do apply in his case. And in Sam, Illinois has something they have sorely lacked since Chester Frazier departed in 2009- a true leader, coach on the floor type. That’s the biggest reason the 2011 Illini senior class -Mike Tisdale, Mike Davis, Demetri McCamey- all underachieved, both individually and as a team. Not a one of them ever came close to being that leader.
Although the 2011-12 team isn’t as talented as last year’s, or the year before, they all seem to like each other and get along. And that makes them appear more likeable.
“When we get between the lines, guys compete and guys get after it, and it’s all business so once you get off the floor, bonding with your teammates and having a good time is what it’s all about,” Maniscalco said.
“Just as long as you control it, are good with it, don’t overdo it, but we definitely have some characters on this team, and some big personalities which is good.”
Maniscalco is roommates with Brandon Paul.
Before the season even began, Maniscalco made his mark in the Illini record book. There’s been a 00 jersey number, but he’s the first 0 in history. “I wanted single digits, and 1-2-3-4 were taken, and obviously 5 is off limits, for obvious reasons (Deron Wiliams) so I went with 0.”
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