Curbelo’s creativity, Miller’s magic help Illini find success throughout season


Photo Courtesy of Fighting Illini Athletics

Freshman Andre Curbelo celebrates after scoring during the Big Ten semifinal match against Iowa. Curbelo is one of several freshmen who have shown promise this season.

By Jackson Janes, Sports Editor

After the 2018-2019 season, Illinois looked worn out. Losing five of their final six games in the regular season, the Illini limped into the Big Ten Tournament and struggled, needing overtime to beat last-place Northwestern before losing to Iowa in the second round.
But, there was some hope for the future. Freshmen Ayo Dosunmu and Giorgi Bezhanishvili looked like the real deal, averaging 13.8 and 12.5 points per game, respectively, while sophomore Trent Frazier continued to improve after being named to the Big Ten All-Freshman Team the year prior.
Despite all the uncertainties surrounding the team, head coach Brad Underwood put together an impressive 2020 recruitment class, as it was the third-best in the Big Ten and the 16th-best across all of college basketball.
On Sept. 21, 2019, Brad Underwood landed his first target, with Coleman Hawkins, a 6-foot-10 inches forward from California, agreeing to come to Champaign. Hawkins was a good get, but the Illini’s next two signings were the most influential in the team’s success this season.
The month of November was a big one for Illinois, as both Andre Curbelo, a nifty point guard known for his vision and selflessness, and Adam Miller, another Morgan Park prospect with loads of potential, both announced their commitments to Underwood and the Illini. The team also added 7-foot Deerfield native Brandon Lieb in June of 2020, though he has seen little game time this season.
After Dosunmu announced he would be returning for a third year following the 2020 season that was cut short due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, many people questioned how the roles of Miller and Curbelo, who were both expected to immediately jump into the starting lineup, would change.
That hasn’t been an issue for the team this season, as Miller has solidified his place in the starting lineup with his 3-point shooting. Curbelo has provided a spark off the bench and earned the Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year award, and Hawkins has been a reliable presence off the bench whenever he’s called upon.
Curbelo has been the brightest bulb of the freshman class. Averaging 20.5 minutes and 8.8 points per game, the Puerto Rico native has played in all even games this season. After an up-and-down first few weeks, Curbelo has settled in, as he averaged 15 points per game during the Illini’s final five regular-season games, including a career-high 19 in the regular-season finale against the Buckeyes.
“One thing you never have to worry about with Andre Curbelo is there’s going to be something happening,” Underwood said after Illinois’ 23-point win over Michigan on March 2. “And he’s always ready. He plays with zero fear and so much confidence.”
Known for his passing and play-making abilities, Curbelo finished first in the Big Ten in assists during conference play with 91.
“He sometimes makes passes that nobody expects him to make,” Cockburn said of Curbelo on Dec. 16. “He sees the floor differently. I just have to start getting used to that. I’ve never played with someone like him that has that vision.”

Freshman Adam Miller defends during the Big Ten semifinal match against Iowa. (Photo Courtesy of Fighting Illini Athletics)

While Curbelo brings flashy passing, Miller’s biggest attributes are his 3-point shooting and intense defensive presence. The Peoria native made the second-most threes on the team — behind only Frazier — during the Big Ten regular season, and he is also a big reason why the Illini have allowed an average of less than 69 points per game.
Though his offensive production was a bit inconsistent throughout the season, Miller still averaged 7.2 points and three rebounds while also starting every game this year. He also credits Dosunmu, who he played with at Morgan Park, for helping him find his role this season.
“I came to play for the school,” Miller said on Feb. 26. “To have him here, it really has helped me. My production might not be as much, but we are winning and learning so much in the process.”
It’s also a testament to Underwood’s coaching and recruiting that the Illini have had a player on the Big Ten All-Freshman Team — Frazier in 2018, Dosunmu in 2019, Cockburn in 2020 and now Curbelo in 2021 — in four consecutive seasons. Both Miller and Curbelo have the ability to make up for Dosunmu’s likely departure next year and beyond, and they are both essential pieces to this Illinois puzzle this season.
With March Madness on the horizon, Miller and Curbelo will need to continue to step up and shine in the big moments as they have done all year, and with the Illini’s championship aspirations, they must prove why Underwood and the Illini were so eager to bring them to Champaign.

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