CHAMPAIGN - Sam Maniscalco had done it 424 times before during his college basketball career. Making field goals is just part of what earned him the nickname "Big Shot Sam" at Bradley.
But when his shot, a three-point attempt, finally hit the bottom of the net 10 minutes into Illinois' Dec. 18 game at Nebraska, the Illinois graduate student could breathe again.
Maniscalco had gone 53 days since making a three-point attempt, missing his previous 19 attempts. Before Sunday's 5-point, 2-for-2 performance from the field, the squatty, 6-foot Illini point guard went 61 days between multi-field goal games.
"It meant a lot, especially with the struggles I've been going through and the recent stretch I've had," Maniscalco said. "Definitely I'd be lying to you if I said I didn't feel like a weight was lifted off my shoulder."
This season hasn't gone the way Maniscalco or Illinois coach Bruce Weber had dreamed when the NCAA granted the former Bradley guard a waiver to transfer to Illinois and play immediately after sitting out most of his senior season at Bradley with an ankle injury.
Lingering ankle issues derailed a once-promising season for Maniscalco, and the Illini (17-12, 6-10 Big Ten) have followed suit, falling from first place in the Big Ten in early January to ninth place entering Thursday's home game against Michigan.
"I think everyone would be disappointed," Maniscalco said. "It's not just me. I know a lot of focus is on me because I'm a senior, I'm a transfer and I came from Bradley and this and that, but I think if you're not disappointed as an athlete and representing your university you're doing yourself a disservice. It's about pride."
Pushed to the limit
To put it bluntly, the Sam Maniscalco experiment has not been a success. But it's not Maniscalco's fault, and Weber wasn't at fault for taking a chance with the Bradley transfer. His shooting ability (he shot 43 percent in three healthy seasons in Peoria), ballhandling and playmaking (1.75 assist to turnover ratio at Bradley) and leadership potentially provided a short-term band-aid to Illinois' point guard woes.
The experiment initially worked. Maniscalco scored 15, 19 and 14 in early-season wins against Lipscomb, Richmond and Illinois State, the latter two games decided by single digits at the Cancun Challenge. The physically limited point guard then carried the Illini with 24 points in a 71-62 victory at Maryland in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.
Without "Sammy Ice," the Illini may have started the season with a few of the same NCAA Tournament-killing losses that had plagued them in recent seasons. Yet, Maniscalco's early heroics may have come to his and the team's long-term detriment.
Weber had planned to limit Maniscalco's minutes early in the season to protect his ankle. But with the mature Maniscalco leading Illinois to much-needed wins, Weber - who already was under the watchful eye of first-year athletic director Mike Thomas entering the season - put a lot of weight on Maniscalco's aching ankle.
From the Nov. 22 Richmond game to the Minnesota overtime win on Dec. 27, a span of 11 games, the senior averaged 30.2 minutes per game, averaged 10.9 points with 33 total assists to 14 turnovers.
Maniscalco has since missed four games due to injury and hasn't been much of a factor during Big Ten play, averaging 21.3 minutes, 2.0 points, 1.8 assists and 1.6 rebounds over 12 games.
"I don't think we - whether it's our team doctors, Al Martindale or probably Sam - ever could have envisioned that the ankle would not have been as stable as we had hoped or he had hoped," Weber said. "He started off the season great. All-Tournament at Cancun. You go to Maryland, and he was one of the best players on the court. …I think just the wear and tear of college basketball, it took a toll. It's a shame."
Weber said losing Maniscalco's presence in practice almost hurt as much as losing his production in games.
"If you talk to Purdue and talk to Matt (Painter), when they struggled, it was because Lewis (Jackson) and Robbie (Hummel) couldn't practice," Weber said. "You lose that edge you have in your daily habits and daily competition."
Maniscaclo hasn't helped Illinois as much as he, Weber or fans had hoped. Some fans questioned why Weber continued to play him during his struggles.
Weber is a fan of the 23-year-old Maniscalco. He's the type of player the UI roster has lacked the last three seasons. He can add "orneriness" and "feistiness" to a team that has been out-toughed by Big Ten foes. He also takes the burden off of Tracy Abrams, a developing point guard who during conference play has committed 25 more turnovers than Maniscalco (seven turnovers) in 154 more minutes of play.
Despite Weber's continued confidence, Maniscalco's confidence shattered. He hasn't been able to dig out of the quicksand as the Illini lost 9 of 10 following a win over then-No. 5 Ohio State on Jan. 10.
"Sam will tell you, he felt sorry for himself," Weber said. "…He came to us a couple weeks ago and apologized. He said, 'I should've been helping more. I should've been more vocal, but I was worried about my own situation instead of the team.' I think it takes some maturity and gumption to do that. My hat goes off to him. That's why I know he's going to be successful in life."
Maniscalco added: "I got a little bit away from myself because I was frustrated with my health and the situation, and I felt like I was not helping out the team like I knew I could. I just went to coach and we had a good conversation, kind of a heart-to-heart, if you'd like to call it.
"I just said I'm going to bring a positive attitude. I'm going to be a great teammate. I'm going to try to bring energy and bring anything I can to help this team be successful and fill my role. But I don't think it was anything more than a coach with his player having a heart-to-heart talk in a crucial, tough time in the season."
Out with a bang?
Maniscalco will be honored along with walk-on Jean Selus during a pre-game Senior Night ceremony before Thursday's 6 p.m. tipoff. Neither has been with the program long (Selus played at Parkland Junior College in Champaign for two seasons), and neither has had a great on-the-court impact.
Yet, as crazy as it sounds, Maniscalco still has time to reach his goal of making an NCAA Tournament. Illinois certainly doesn't appear an NCAA team from the outside and certainly seems destined for its second N.I.T. appearance in three seasons.
But with wins over two ranked opponents this week (No. 13 Michigan and at No. 14 Wisconsin on Sunday), the Illini can play themselves back onto the bubble. And few bubble teams would be able to match the Illini's resume - with wins over Michigan State, Ohio State and Gonzaga.
Maniscalco has picked up some momentum heading into March - relative to his performance the previous two months - making 4 of 9 shots over the last three games, including a 5-point, 4-rebound, 4-assist performance against Iowa. With those kinds of numbers the previous two months, very different discussions could be surrounding Illinois basketball right now.
But the reality is that Maniscalco's college career is almost over (he wants to pursue coaching or broadcasting after graduate school). Much like Weber, he has had a nightmarish 2012 so far.
"I'm a 23-year-old that's been through this before," Maniscalco said. "I can sit here and say I had two ankle surgeries, and I've had a rough college basketball season so far. But if that's the worst thing that's happened in my life so far, then I'm pretty fortunate."
Yet like Weber - who also appears to be on his way out at Illinois - Maniscalco doesn't appear to have given up hope of a strong finish.
"I think the focus is we have to keep approaching things with a positive attitude," Maniscalco said.
"There's a few things growing up that I've always done and I always will be. One, I'll always be a good teammate. Two, I'll always play my tail off. And three, I'll always be coachable. That's how I always approach every practice, every game and every team I'm on. If you got guys that do that, I think it's easier to be successful."
Jeremy Werner is the co-host and Illinois reporter for the "Tay and J Show," which airs weekdays 3-6 p.m. on 93.5, 95.3 ConnectFM in Champaign-Urbana and streams online at www.myconnectfm.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @WernerConnectFM