At the halfway mark of the 2011-2012 NCAA basketball season, University of Illinois head coach Bruce Weber must be pleased with his teams' progression.
The Fighting Illini own a 15-3 overall record. Their 4-1 record in the Big Ten has earned them a tie for first place with Michigan State.
The season has been a welcome relief compared to an altogether forgettable 2010-2011 campaign.
Consistency and overachievement have replaced last year's lapses in focus and preparation, on-court feuds and questionable leadership.
Optimism reigns in Champaign-Urbana these days. And for good reason.
Here is a breakdown of why this year's Fighting Illini basketball team will win the Big Ten title.
Winning Close Games
The Big Ten is the most competitive basketball conference in the nation. A team's acumen and resume simply don't matter when playing on the road in hostile arenas like Wisconsin's Kohl Center and Michigan State's Breslin Center.
On Saturday, Iowa shockingly dropped No. 13 Michigan at Carver-Hawekeye Arena. Northwestern then knocked off conference co-leader Michigan State, 81-74.
Conference games are going to be close this season. What matters is winning them.
Illinois has proved that they can do just that.
The Fighting Illini have won five of their last eight games either in overtime or by a scoring margin of five or fewer points:
- Dec. 19 - UI 64, Cornell 60
- Dec. 27 - UI 81, Minnesota 72 (2 OT)
- Jan. 4 - UI 57, @ Northwestern 56
- Jan. 7 - UI 59, Nebraska 54
- Jan. 10 - UI 79, Ohio State 74
They have tallied close wins earlier in the season against Illinois State (63-59) and St. Bonaventure (48-43).
As the season moves forward, close games will be a certainty. Illinois finds itself at a decided advantage in this critical area.
Meyers Leonard: The Most Dominant UI Center Since Deon Thomas
Bruce Weber's motion offense is a guard-oriented system emphasizing ball movement and screening. The 2005 Final Four team, led by NBA superstar Deron Williams, won 37 games without a game-changing player at the center spot.
Illinois' offense has struggled since the departure of 2005's cadre of NBA-caliber guards (i.e. Williams, Dee Brown, and Luther Head).
Weber's current offense is more fluid and balanced than it has been in years. One of the primary reasons why Illinois' offense presents such a unique challenge is Meyers Leonard.
Leonard is forcing opponents' defenses to pay attention.
The 7'1" sophomore is third in the Big Ten conference in field goal percentage and overall rebounds. He's fourth in field goal percentage and even leads in blocked shots.
Jared Sullinger, the Ohio State All-American center, learned that he wouldn't have his way with the Fighting Illini last Tuesday.
Leonard frustrated Sullinger all night. Sullinger was limited to five rebounds—more than three shy of his average.
Leonard also won the war of intangibles. His presence inside forced Sullinger and his teammates to collapse, which opened up Illinois teammate Brandon Paul.
Paul scored 43 points, going eight for ten from beyond the three-point arc, largely thanks to Leonard.
Look for the Illini to increase the amount of touches Leonard sees on the blocks. If Leonard can overcome the occasional drifting out of scoring position, the entire team will benefit.
When the Fighting Illlini go on to capture the Big Ten title, Meyers Leonard will be the cornerstone of how points are scored.
Efficient Point Guard Play
Since Deron Williams in 2005, the point guard position at Illinois has been occupied by Chester Frazier, Demetri McCamey and even Brandon Paul for brief stints.
The problem is that none of those players were true point guards.
Weber's bold move to bring Bradley transfer Sam Maniscalco for his fifth year has been a success.
Maniscalco's statistics in 2011-2012 will not put him in the conversation for All-Conference honors or team MVP, but he's been the oil in the Illini engine.
“He’s definitely a difference-maker,” head coach Bruce Weber told the Peoria Journal Star after the Illini's win against Maryland in College Park. “We needed experience and maturity. He brings both of those to the table.”
Weber needed the fifth-year senior to be a pass-first point guard that could provide control, emotional leadership on the court and ball movement.
Maniscalco did just that early in the season, but has not played since early January due to a recurring ankle injury. He is expected back to the lineup soon.
Meanwhile, freshman Tracy Abrams has provided worthwhile service in Maniscalco's absence. Abrams has show himself to be the quicker option who can increase the level of pace.
No matter how Weber decides to use Abrams and Maniscalco, rest assured that either will continue to look for Meyers Leonard inside and DJ Richardson and Brandon Paul on the wings.
Paul, Richardson and Meyers Leonard are all averaging 13 points per game. They have increased their respective PPG from last year by four, five and 11 points.
Maniscalco and Abrams are the difference.
A Renewed House of 'Paign
Champaign-Urbana's Assembly Hall is routinely mentioned as being a challenging place to play.
"I would say that Assembly Hall is in the Top Five of venues I have seen...It's big time," ESPN's Jay Bilas said in a Scout.com chat transcript from 2005.
Assembly Hall has lost a little orange and blue luster in recent years due to middle of the table conference finishes and losses.
Attendance is down and even the Orange Krush, a philanthropy-based student group, has had trouble filling up the seats against weak opponents.
But things are changing for the better this season.
The Fighting Illini currently hold an 11-0 undefeated record at Assembly Hall. The schedule has not exactly been cupcake row either.
Wins at home include Gonzaga and No. 5 Ohio State.
The passion and energy is back.
TrevD, a forum poster IllinoisLoyalty.com, shared his experience about last Tuesday.
"Not expecting much from the game, [a friend gave me Ohio State tickets] for nothing. Then I witnessed the greatest game I've ever been to. That crowd atmosphere was just so electric, it was the best game I've ever attended."
The renewed belief in Illinois' veteran guards and newcomers will continue to invigorate fans in the area. Assembly Hall has once again become the most challenging venue in the conference.
Such a decided home-court advantage will give Illinois the upper hand against all of the remaining teams on the schedule.