Column | Andre Curbelo return provides spark offensively, creates lineup dilemma


Photo courtesy of Illini Athletics

Guard Andre Curbelo performs a lay up during the Purdue game on Jan. 17. With Curbelo’s return, may lead to possible set backs for the team lineup.

By Josh Pietsch, Sports On-Air Editor

Monday morning, Andre Curbelo walked out onto the State Farm Center as his team went to warm up. This time was different, though, than the last 11 games. Without any announcement, Curbelo was dressed in warm-up clothes like the rest of the team. Less than an hour before the game started, he was cleared to play.

When he did play earlier in the season, the sophomore guard looked out of sorts. He was turning the ball over a ton, was selfish with the ball and looked nothing like he did the latter half of the 2020-21 season. 

After an 11-game absence due to concussion-related implications, Curbelo saw the floor again for the first time coming off the bench against Purdue. And boy, did he come back at a good time.

To recap, Illinois went 10-1 while Curbelo sat on the bench supporting his team while in street clothes. A record as such is nothing to complain about, but Illinois only played one ranked team, Arizona, a four-point Illini loss at State Farm Center. But the 10 wins were by no means perfect.

In what seemed like a buy game, Illinois only defeated University of Texas Rio Grande Valley by nine points after a back-and-forth game, blew a big lead against Maryland in the first half and played a winless-in-conference-play Nebraska team and struggling Michigan close until the final minutes.

On multiple occasions, the Illini would go on scoring droughts that came from one of three reasons: center Kofi Cockburn was out of the game, there was a lack of offensive chemistry or the team was just missing good looks. 

The best example of this was the home game against Maryland on Jan. 6. Illinois got off to an almost perfect start, leading 21-7 after 10 minutes. Cockburn was dealing inside, and shooters were hitting open threes. Then Cockburn picked up his second foul.

The big man came out of the game, and everything went downhill from there. Illinois didn’t make a basket during the final 6:57 of the half, and Maryland went on a 27-9 run to take a four-point lead going into the break. 

Cockburn came back in the second half and dominated, Trent Frazier went on a big run and Illinois won the game by double digits. Had he not stayed out of foul trouble, though, things may have ended very differently.

Even against Nebraska and Michigan, when Cockburn was on the floor but not playing his best, the team struggled at times. Both games were very close until Frazier pulled the team away in the final few minutes, and something just felt like it was missing.

That piece? Andre Curbelo.

Curbelo came off the bench against the Boilermakers in his first game back and played 26 minutes in the double overtime thriller. Visibly tired at times, the guard gave it his all. And he played a great game.

Illinois struggled in the first half, trailing at the break by 11. Curbelo only played a few minutes, and the big-man duo of Zach Edey and Trevion Williams were outplaying Cockburn by a considerable amount. Frazier, Alfonso Plummer and Jacob Grandison were also struggling from the field. 

Suddenly, things started to turn around. 

Curbelo subbed into the game and immediately made a difference. He created offense that Illinois had been missing on the day, opening up the offense for shooters to get open and for Curbelo to score the ball himself. Plummer began to heat up, the crowd was rowdy and Curbelo was feeling it.

His fade-away jumper near the end of regulation forced overtime, and his pass to Plummer for a layup forced double overtime. Illinois ended up losing, but Curbelo finished the contest with 20 points, three assists and six boards. No turnovers.

The Illini came up short, but the game would have ended way sooner had Curbelo not played the way he did. He only played 26 total minutes and still put up an impressive stat line while being visibly exhausted. 

Cockburn had his worst game of the year, shots weren’t falling and the team seemed out of sorts. But Curbelo came in and brought the team back from down 11. 

Some people have argued that Illinois is better without Curbelo due to his lack of shooting ability, but his performance against Purdue shows why that just isn’t the case. I’ve been writing for a few weeks now that Illinois needed a spark when it was in a drought and that that spark was Curbelo. Monday, he proved me right.

Curbelo still has a bit of work to do to get back to full form. He isn’t as well conditioned as his teammates, and that affected him on defense. Soon enough he’ll be back into full form, and that’s where the dilemma for head coach Brad Underwood begins. 

What’s the starting lineup?

To start the season, Plummer came off the bench, as he did at Utah. He actually seemed to prefer his role off the bench, as he scored nicely coming off the bench in roughly half of the 2020-21 season.

But Plummer is Illinois’ second leading scorer at 16.4 points per game, is shooting 40% from three and leads the nation in free-throw shooting at 98%. How can you take that out of your starting lineup?

Trent Frazier is a fifth-year senior that is third on the team in scoring at 13.4 points per game, is the best defending guard on the team — much better than Plummer and Curbelo — and can heat up at any time to take over a game. Cue the Maryland, Nebraska and Michigan games. 

Curbelo, when healthy, is Illinois’ best facilitator and finds ways to score despite not shooting as well from behind the arc. If you watched the Big Ten tournament last season, even though he didn’t start, Curbelo was playing his best ball of the year and was easily one of the main reasons the Illini won the title game.

To me, Frazier stays in the starting lineup no matter what. He is arguably the best guard defender in the conference, takes over a game like no other guard can on the team and is your fifth-year senior leader. 

So, it comes down to Curbelo and Plummer. Do you start them both with Frazier, and if not, who comes off the bench? 

As far as starting two or three of them, I think Underwood will decide that depending on the matchups. We’ve seen that he doesn’t have any problem not sticking with the same starting lineup each game. If Illinois is facing a team with bigger guards where you need more defense or a long team like Arizona, you can only start Frazier and one more. But if the opposing team is smaller, all three can get the nod. 

If the team is bigger, or if Underwood only wants to start Frazier and Curbelo or Plummer permanently, it gets tough. You either stick with the combo that at times this season has combined for 10+ threes, or do you go with a great passing-shooting duo with a spark off the bench if Frazier is cold? Personally, I’ll take the latter. 

I really like Plummer off the bench. Even if he hasn’t shot well, he has shown he can heat up at any time and was a great bench piece in the Pac-12 with Utah for years. Curbelo in the starting lineup provides more options for an offensive game plan to start with, which I like.

If all three of them start, either Grandison or Williams heads to the bench. I think that’s less of a big deal, but maybe keep Williams in for the defense and his leadership. Those two would play similar minutes anyway.

Back to Curbelo, Frazier and Plummer, though. I think Underwood will evaluate and make the right decision. Either way, they’ll all be in the game at the same time in key moments when the team needs scoring and should all play over half the game. The starting lineup is less of a big deal than it’s made out to be, but it still matters.

Regardless, Curbelo coming back is the spark Illinois needed heading into a very tough part of its schedule. Michigan State, Wisconsin, Ohio State and other good defensive teams all await, so having another option on offense will be key.

Welcome back, Andre.



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