Fresh start for center Carlwell

Susan Kantor

Adam Babcock

Susan Kantor

Brian Carlwell felt helpless and worthless sitting at the end of the Illini bench while his team struggled to a school-worst 19 losses last season. The 6-foot-11, 265 pound center played five minutes in just three games. So little time on the court eventually became too much for Carlwell and he quit the team on Feb. 20.

“I wasn’t playing and we weren’t doing well, and it made me feel like crap,” Carlwell said in an interview with The Daily Illini. “It was that ‘If we aren’t doing well and I’m not playing, then I must really suck’ kind of feeling.”

After a career of setbacks both on and off the court at Illinois, Carlwell will transfer to San Diego State University. The former Illini must sit out the upcoming season per NCAA transfer rules. But he may have as many as three years of eligibility at SDSU if he is granted a medical redshirt after a torn medial collateral ligament limited his playing time last season.

Carlwell said he also looked at Arkansas State and Howard, but former Illinois commit Quinton Watkins swayed him to join the Aztecs, who went 20-13 last season and made it to the NIT.

Watkins worked out with the Illini last summer but never became academically eligible. Watkins didn’t play a minute at SDSU either after leaving for personal reasons in April.

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“We became really good friends,” Carlwell said of Watkins. “He told me about their program and how they needed a big man, so I eventually called coaches and talked to them.”

A short time after deciding to leave Illinois, Carlwell had a change of heart and approached the coaching staff about possibly returning. But the door had already closed.

“I was told that the admissions people thought it would be a bad idea to let me come back to the team,” Carlwell said. “It wasn’t up to coaches, so I didn’t hold resentment towards them. I understand that I was the one who wanted to leave at first.”

Carlwell said he wasn’t sure if he was academically eligible to return to the University. Derrick Burson, a spokesman for the Sports Information Department, declined comment on the nature of Carlwell’s departure. Burson added that the University is unable to comment on a former student’s academic record, citing NCAA rules.

Carlwell said the coaching staff supported him throughout his career but felt their trust in him was lost after the Feb. 12, 2007 car accident that sent Carlwell to the hospital with a severe concussion. Jamar Smith, Carlwell’s teammate and the driver of the car, was charged with driving under the influence and served a two-week sentence. No charges were filed against Carlwell.

The Illinois coaching staff was surprised by Carlwell’s slightly bitter feelings as he departs.

“Brian had to deal with some unfortunate situations and injuries during his time here,” Illinois coach Bruce Weber said in a statement. “I’m sure he has some frustration over his career not unfolding the way he envisioned. After Brian made the decision to leave the team, we continued to offer him assistance through the academic services program that all our student-athletes receive. We supported Brian during his time at Illinois and appreciate the contributions he made to our program. We all wish him the best with his new opportunity.”

Weber also helped Carlwell in his search for a new school.

“I wish things would have worked out better,” Carlwell said. “I don’t want (the Illinois coaching staff) to look at me how they look at me, but I understand it’s their job.”

Even though he feels his relationship with the coaching staff suffered after the accident, Carlwell said he grew closer with his teammates – including Smith, who drove back to his Savoy apartment and left Carlwell in the car, allegedly believing he was dead.

“Things changed for all of the ones I was really close with; we didn’t take anything for granted,” Carlwell said. “I saw how they got behind me after the accident, how I got behind Jamar after the accident, and it made us just that much closer.”

Carlwell was Scout.com’s No. 6-rated center following his senior season at Proviso East when he averaged 18.8 points, 12.4 rebounds and 5.4 blocks. Four of the centers rated in front of him – Greg Oden, Spencer Hawes and Brook and Robin Lopez – were top-15 draft picks in the NBA, while the No. 8-rated player, UCONN junior Hasheem Thabeet, is a likely first-round draft pick when he declares for the NBA.

The hype was that Carlwell could be one of the nation’s best defensive post players. No one could have seen the slippery road that would derail the center’s Illini career. Carlwell knows basketball is not a likely career choice for his future now, but maintains that he won’t lament his past.

“I don’t regret anything I do, eventually it will have a purpose.” Carlwell said. “I had a lot of fun at Illinois. If basketball was something I wanted to do for the rest of my life, I never would have left Illinois. I love the people. I wanted to go there because I wanted to make the state school basketball experience that much better.”