by Scott Gleeson

Sam Maniscalco is no stranger to the Big Ten Conference.

His former Illinois Wolves AAU teammates, Demetri McCamey and Evan Turner, made names for themselves playing for Illinois and Ohio State.

Maniscalco? He played for Bradley, a top-level mid-major with Sweet 16 roots and a rich basketball community. If it wasn’t Bradley, it was Southern Illinois, Loyola or DePaul—all smaller in-state schools. The 6-foot point guard didn’t get a whisper from Big Ten programs while playing for St. Patrick High School in Chicago.

But after he opted to leave Bradley following graduation to use his final year of NCAA eligibility elsewhere, the offers that he never got in high school came piling in. Purdue, Indiana and Illinois were his top pursuers.

Fittingly, Maniscalco’s good friend McCamey had graduated, leaving a void at the point guard position for the Illini. Illinois coach Bruce Weber had signed up-and-comer point guard Tracy Abrams, a top-100 recruit from Mt. Carmel, Ill. But for the 2011-12 season, Weber was in need of a heady floor general sugar-coated with experience and leadership.

“I just felt like it was the perfect fit,” said Maniscalco, a three-year captain at Bradley and two-time Missouri Valley Conference second teamer.  “I went for a visit, talked to Coach Weber and felt real comfortable with the situation. The recruiting pitch was, ‘You can come here and be a senior leader, you’ve been through the wars. Help [Tracy], be a mentor.’”

Just like that, Illinois found a veteran point guard. To many Illini fans, Maniscalco was a short, stocky guard from a small school. To Weber and his coaching staff, they were getting a player who piloted Bradley to a 72-68 upset of the Illini in 2009.

“He’s definitely a difference-maker,” Weber said. “We needed experience and maturity. He brings both to the table.”

Early on, Maniscalco has been that difference-maker for the undefeated Illini (No. 24 AP, No. 22 Coaches Poll). He’s averaging 12.9 points a game with cold-blooded shooting percentages (53 percent field goals, 39 percent from three, 90 percent from the line). He buried five three-pointers on the way to 24 points to help Illinois pick up a 71-62 road win over Maryland in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

Maniscalco, best friends with Turner (now playing with the Philadelphia 76ers), by now is used to the naysayers, those who don’t believe he’s tall enough, quick enough, strong enough or good enough coming from the Missouri Valley.

“I think I’ve heard that [criticism] since I was 10 years old. That’s what I thrive on, that’s my motivation,” Maniscalco said. “Playing at Bradley the last four years, we weren’t on a national level as much as Illinois is. I’m definitely surprising people, but I’m not surprising myself. I’m not bragging, I just have high expectations for myself.”

It’s easy to notice the fifth-year senior’s maturity on the court. He leads by example—he took two momentum-shifting charges in Illinois’ 70-61 win over Richmond. He comes through in the clutch—he scored five points in the final minute with a dagger three-pointer and pair of free throws to help Illinois top in-state rival Illlinois State. He makes smart plays—he called a timeout to re-group when a trapping press was thrown at the Illini against Maryland.

“He makes everybody better,” said teammate Brandon Paul (13.3 ppg).

And when his Tyler Hansbrough-clone teammate—Meyers Leonard (13.4 ppg) started to jaw with Maryland players to brew up a fight, Maniscalco was quick to grab the 7-footer by the jersey and point his index finger like a mother scolding a six-year old.

“Sam has kind of been the guy for us this year,” Leonard was quick to point out after Illinois’ win over Maryland.

Quarterbacking Illinois’ offense, Maniscalco believes being a vocal leader is one of his main duties as a fifth-year senior.

“Coach Weber can’t go out there and play. He can scream but you have to transfer that to the players,” he explained. “I try to let my voice be heard and be an extension of the coach on the court. Having the most experience on the team, it’s my job to manage situations, control the tempo. That’s how I look at it.”

While he was expected to be more of a catalyst at Bradley, at Illinois, he’s simply running an offense and finding a comfort level in a system. Most of his buckets are made at the charity stripe and on open triples.

“It’s a credit to my teammates,” Maniscalco said, showing no signs of a selfish bone in his body. “It’s not about me, it’s about this team.”

“It’s about Illinois,” he said, pointing to his chest. “This is about getting us back on the map.”

For Maniscalco, who wears No. 0, putting on the Illini jersey provides a surreal factor.

“It’s a privilege to put on an Illinois uniform,” he said. “I’m from Illinois, I grew up watching Dee Brown and Deron Williams. And my oldest brother was a big Illinois fan. I loved watching Frank Williams growing up.”

A series of dominoes had to fall Maniscalco’s way, though, before he became a member of the team he grew up watching.

After putting up strong numbers at Bradley in his sophomore (12.6 ppg, 3.1 apg) and junior (13.1 ppg, 3.4 apg) seasons, a nagging ankle injury cut Maniscalco’s senior season short after six games. He was granted a medical redshirt, but after receiving his diploma from Bradley and the firing of Jim Les, Maniscalco wanted to pursue his options both academically and athletically.

He received his undergrad in sports communication, and Illinois’ recreation and tourism Master’s program fit his career path, as he’s studying with a concentration in sports management. Because he already graduated and was pursuing his Master’s, he was eligible for the Illini immediately instead of having to sit out a year like typical transfers.

Despite the perfect scenario, leaving Bradley, where his father also played basketball, was hardly an easy decision.

“It was hard because I had been there for four years and it felt like home to me. I’m still tight with all my old teammates. Those guys are my best friends,” said Maniscalco, recalling Bradley’s “MVC Shuffle” YouTube sensation of 2009. “I wouldn’t trade my experience at Bradley for the world. Everyone treated me so great there. Once I got my degree, I just felt like it was time for the next chapter both academically and athletically.”

Now, he’s focusing on the final chapter in his hoops career with a major program. At Bradley, getting into the NCAA Tournament would be considered a dream season. At Illinois, it’s expected.

“I hope I’m wearing my dancing shoes,” Maniscalco said. “I think our team has a lot of potential. We have great depth, but it’s a long season. We have to keep stringing wins together. We still have the [Big Ten] season to play. In college basketball, seasons are so up and down—they’re marathons. One of the biggest things I’ve learned the last four years is that you have to stay even keel.”